an amateur transcript of president uchtdorf’s 2014 address to the church history symposium
A week ago, I watched this video of President Uchtdorf addressing the Church History Symposium. I loved his address. I decided to make a personal transcript of his talk and then decided that I’d like to share my amateur transcript with anyone who is interested. I have also marked in bold the parts that stood out to me. President Uchtdorf’s address is the following:
History is important. And keeping ourselves anchored to the lessons learned from history will enable us to emulate the best of what it means to be human. It can also help us to avoid the worst.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher and idealist said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” Which is supported by George Santayana who wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The late novelist Michael Crichton is reported to have said, “ If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” History teaches us not only about the leaves of existence, it also teaches us about the twigs, the branches, the trunks, and the roots of life. One of the weaknesses we have as mortals is to assume that our leaf is all there is. And you find this often in other people, but I think if we look into the mirror, we find it even in our own perceptions.It is that our experience encompasses everyone elses. That our truth is complete and universal. As I considered what I wanted to speak about today it seemed that the metaphor of the leaf needed to be at the heart. But I also ran across an old Yiddish expression that goes ‘To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.’ So I want to emphasize that the truth embraced by the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints extends beyond leaves of any size and certainly beyond horseradish. It extends beyond time and space and encompasses all truth, the mysteries of the tiniest atoms to the vast and incomprehensible secrets that the universe holds so tantalizingly before us.
The gospel of Jesus Christ not only encompasses the truth of what was and what is but the truth of what can and will be. It is the most practical of all truths. It teaches the way of the disciple that can take flawed, ordinary people and transform them into glorious, immortal and limitless beings whose divine potential is beyond our meager capacity to imagine. Now that is practical truth. It is priceless beyond imagination it is truth of the highest order. The pursuit, discovery, and application of truth is what we are on this Earth to discover. And you are part of this process because you are scholars, you are interested in this field.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ not only encompasses all truth, but it specializes in the knowledge that will be of greatest importance to us in this life and throughout the eternities to come. I like this one saying by Winston Churchill where he says “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
As mentioned before, one of the traits we share as human beings is that we assume that our own experience is a true and proper base from which to view the rest of the world. For example when we’re healthy we presume that those we meet are healthy and judge them by that standard. When we are sick, we are more likely to wonder if others are sick as well. It goes even to very trivial areas, when you drive a Ford, you see Fords on the road. We assume what the leaf of our existence defines the rest of the world.
Tolkien began his famous novel The Hobbit with these words “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” Now you all remember Bilbo Baggins lived in a comfortable home in a small peaceful village that celebrated gardening, community gatherings and a meal schedule that included breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, supper, and dinner. I envy the schedule. Bilbo was quite content with the leaf of his life. And it was beautiful for that. But little did he know of the twigs, the branches, the trunks and the roots that were all around him. Little did he know of distant towers, trolls, and talking trees. The farther he went from the comforts of the shire, the more remarkable and strange the world became.
While Tolkiens’ world was one of fiction, it can serve as a metaphor for our own experience. I grew up in a small branch of the church in Zwickau East Germany. Our little meeting house was a beautiful building with an old air-driven organ. And it was one of my privileges to sometimes have the assignment to work the bellows that supplied air to the pipe organ. While our congregation sang the beloved hymns of the restoration, I pumped with all my strength so the organ would not run out of wind. The eyes of the organist unmistakably indicated if I was doing fine or needed to increase my efforts quickly. I loved our little meetinghouse with its stained glass window, it was a kind of an old villa. In these the stained glass windows there was Joseph Smith kneeling in the sacred grove. When I was young I supposed this is what the church looked like. That what I was seeing in Zwickau was what every other member of the church saw during their Sunday experience throughout the world. That the little leaf of my experience was the same as everyone else’s.
As I grew older our family moved to Frankfurt where the church was a little larger. There were more members there. The meetinghouse looked different. The older I get and the older I got I had more exposure to the church and its many forms throughout the world. Not everyone who goes to church on Sunday looks like we look on Sunday. It is a different world but it has a lot of things, the most important things, the core things in common. I have worshiped with the saints of God throughout the world, in the most humble of homes to the great conference center in Salt Lake City. It is approaching almost 7 decades since that small child sat behind the organ pumping wildly, trying to force enough air through its pipes so the congregation could hear the beautiful music. I’ve seen the church leaf, twig, branch, trunk, and root. And though outwardly the church appears differently in the various areas of the world, I can affirm it is of the same spirit and the same essence wherever you go. It rests upon the foundation of the blessed redeemer and is guided by the rock of revelation. No matter how different the church may appear in its outer form, Wherever you travel the inner spirit of Christ is the same in every congregation and that is how it should be.
I stand in awe of how the holy spirit transforms individuals regardless of their cultural, economic or social background. And leads all mankind to forsake the natural man and to cleave to the light. To feel the mighty change that comes to those who seek God’s truth. I’ve met men, women, and children on every continent who have experienced this transformative rebirth in their hearts causing them to have no more disposition to do evil but to do good continually. And you are part of this wonderful individuals. Of times it is not the wise nor the great who respond to the words of the prophets and the missionaries, but the poor in heart, the humble and those who suffer. Frequently these are they who approach their own Hill Oneida in humility and willingness to learn and open their hearts to the work of God and arouse their facilities to exercise a particle of faith even if they can only muster no more than a desire to believe. Sometimes all it takes is the smallest seed. And many of us have that same experience in our lives. Sometimes we must go to our Father in Heaven in earnest prayer, tears wetting our cheeks as we repeat the words the distraught father offered to the gentle Christ, “I do believe, help my unbelief.”
From small seeds, great trees grow. From small beginnings the Lord can work miracles in our lives. Our Heavenly Father is able to make great things come from small beginnings. In fact, this is often his preferred strategy. Case in point, I invite you to consider the small Galilean town of Nazareth. And you scholars of history and of the gospel will see in your inner eye this little town. Why do you suppose our Heavenly Father chose to have his only begotten son raised in this relatively insignificant town in Galilee. Why Nazareth? Why not Jerusalem? Or Rome for that matter? The Jewish convert to Christianity, Alfred Edersheim wrote of this area that there was a general contempt in Rabbinic circles for all that was Galilean. And that ‘Galilean Fool’ was a common and well known expression. The town of Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, nor has Josephus who spoke of many places in this area speak of it. I understand that the Tamuld lists 63 Galilean towns, but does not mention the city of Christ’s youth. When Nathanael first heard of Jesus he voiced the question that must have been on many of inquirer’s lips, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” and yet, from the small out of the way town came the light of the world, the savior of all mankind, our master, the redeemer, of whom I bear witness, of whom I know that He lives and leads this church in this time and in our season of life.
Now 18 centuries later in a small out of the way town, lived a young man who walked into a grove of trees near his home with a question in his heart. He knelt in prayer to ask God for direction in his life. Now Palmyra was nestled in Upstate New York, far from the intellectual and cultural centers of the United States, let alone the world. Why would our Heavenly Father choose such an out of the way place to reveal himself to man?
From these two unlikely and disregarded places, Nazareth and Palmyra, emerge two figures who would change the world. Throughout the record of sacred history we find that our Heavenly Father teaches his children over and again not to place their trust in the wisdom of the world, not to overvalue what the world holds in high regard. He teaches us that the foolishness of God is wiser than man and that the weakness of God is stronger than man. And yet, we have an almost irresistible desire to assume that the leaf of information we have in our possession is a representation of all there is to know. We assume that the horseradish that we see all around us is proof that the world is made of the same substance. We do the best we can with the information at our disposal to make assumptions and increase the body of knowledge and this is of course is a noble pursuit. However when we assume that what we know is all there is to know, we miss the mark and our philosophy and theories fall short to the rich truths that populate heaven and earth.
In the words of Orson F. Whitney, an early leader of the church, “The gospel embraces all truth, whether known or unknown. It incorporates all intelligence, both past and prospective. No righteous principle will ever be revealed, no truth can possibly be discovered either in time or in eternity that doesn’t either directly or indirectly pertain to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Our Heavenly Father teaches this lesson to his children over and over again. He warns against setting aside the knowledge of God or dismissing its importance. It teaches us that we should not assume that what we know, what we can prove and test and verify, is all there is.
Now let me quote another verse that we all know very well, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” God sees infinitely more than we do. Even in our time of internet and Google search and whatever, he knows more. His perspective is infinitely more complete and profound than ours. For as the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are his ways higher than ours and his thoughts than ours. Now he has much more information than we do and a little more information can make all the difference in the world already.
Since, as you know, English is not my native language, I enjoy looking into the meaning of individual words, even plain ones. Take the word plain, now spelled differently. Now spelled p-l-a-n-e. And take another word plane, spelt exactly the same way. But both words have the same amount of letters and they sound the same, nevertheless, there are huge differences between them. One is a handy tool for smoothing planks of uneven wood. The other is an infinitely better choice for trans-oceanic travel. And I could go into that topic, but I won’t. A small amount of additional information and a bit of context makes a wondrous difference in our capacity to understand the meaning of words and the meaning of life’s circumstances.
In our world today we often seek out the wise, the wealthy, and the well-known. We honor their opinions and follow their research. Compare that with how our Heavenly Father operates. He often picks the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. And God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.
Now another quote “And if man come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble and teachable. And my grace is sufficient to all men who humble themselves before me for if they humble themselves before me and have faith unto me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Behold I will show unto the gentiles their weakness. And I will show unto them faith, hope, and charity will bring them unto me, the fountain of all righteousness.” Isn’t that a practical and wonderful truth? God uses the weak and insignificant to bring to pass his work. He gently reminds us that the things that are despised hath God chosen that no flesh may glory in his presence. His knowledge of truth is so infinitely greater than ours that he looks upon the wisdom of the world as perhaps we might look upon the dogmatic assertions of a pedantic fool. And it doesn’t matter in which area someone is a pedantic fool. Though the fool may speak words with passion and conviction, he may lack essential information. We must not abandon God’s revealed truth, which cometh from the roots and source of all righteousness and truth. For what we see in contrast is the truth of our leaf.
Frederick the Great, the 18th century King of Prussia was one of the most innovative and successful military strategist in Prussia’s history, but he was not always successful. After his defeat in Kunzendorf, many of his soldiers widely scattered in confusion. The story is told that one of the soldiers was brought before the king who asked him why he had run away. The soldier answered ‘because things had been going badly for your majesty.’ Frederick reflected for a moment then said mildly ‘I suggest that you wait a week then if things are still going badly, we will quit together.’ I think there’s a lesson in this. There will be times when it may appear that things are going badly for the truth of God, that the evidence of the world contradicts God’s utterances. For my part, I have learned to be patient, knowing that in the end things will work out. God’s kingdom will continue to grow. It is his work, he will succeed. The truth will continue to flourish and spread throughout the Earth. Sometimes all it takes is a little faith and a little more patience. Stay calm and carry on. That is good counsel at times.
Things that may appear impossible now may become matter of fact in years to come. Now let me share with you a personal experience that illustrates that. You are all well aware that in 1961 the communist regime of East Germany began building a wall that would cut off the city of West Berlin from the surrounding area. This wall was a symbol of the Cold War and served as a metaphor for the separation and division between the communist world and the democratic Western world. One of the resulting side effects of this increased isolation was that it became increasingly difficult for members of the church in East Germany to visit the Swiss temple, the only temple in Europe at that time. 7 years later in 1968, Elder Thomas S. Monson, an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ visited the saints in the German Democratic Republic, the DDR, and I’m sure you’ve heard President Monson talk about this. Now let me quote what President Monson said at his visit “On a cloudy and rain-filled day I journeyed to the city of Görlitz, situated deep in the German Democratic Republic near the Polish and Czech borders. I attended my first meeting with the Saints. We assembled in a small and ancient building. As the members sang the hymns of Zion, they literally filled the hall with their faith and devotion. My heart was filled with sorrow when I realized the members had no patriarch, no wards or stakes—just branches. They could not receive temple blessings—either endowment or sealing. No official visitor had come from Church headquarters in a long time. The members could not leave their country. Yet they trusted in the Lord with all their hearts.”
And President Monson continues, “I stood at the pulpit, and with tear-filled eyes and a voice choked with emotion, I made a promise to the people: “If you will remain true and faithful to the commandments of God, every blessing any member of the Church enjoys in any other country will be yours. Then I realized what I had said. That night, I dropped to my knees and pleaded with my Heavenly Father, ‘Father, I’m on Thy errand; this is Thy Church. I have spoken words that came not from me but from Thee and Thy Son. Wilt Thou fulfill the promise in the lives of this noble people.’”
While six years later in 1975, President Monson returned to the Democratic Republic. He went to a beautiful place high above the Elbe River near Dresden and Meissen and rededicated the East German mission for the advancement of God’s work. I quote from his prayer, “Grant Heavenly Father that the membership here may receive their patriarchal blessings and live in such a way as to bring the promises to fulfillment. Heavenly Father, wilt thou open up the way that the faithful may be accorded to the privilege of going to thy holy temple there to receive their holy endowments and be sealed to their families for time and for all of eternity.”
And the dedicatory prayer continues with the most wondrous pronouncement and I encourage you, if you haven’t read it yet, please do. I recommend it to you earnestly. President Monson concludes his prayer, “Amidst the ringing of church bells this morning and the singing of birds in this the forest which thou hast created, music fills our souls and gratitude fills our hearts as we humbly acknowledge before thee that thou art our father. That with thee all things are possible and that thy gospel has been restored to the Earth. Grant that the way may be cleared for the program of the church in its fullness to come to this people for they through their faith have merited such blessings. As thy humble servant, acknowledging the divine revelation and inspiration of this day, I therefore invoke thy holy blessings upon thy work and upon thy people in the Dresden mission in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”
When I first learned about these wonderful promises by a prophet of God, my heart filled with gratitude to the Lord, but at the same time I had an encroaching feeling of uncertainty, almost unbelief. There seemed no possible way that these beautiful promises to our people could happen to their lifetime, if ever. How could a temple be built and operate in East Germany. I had faith in the Lord and I loved and acknowledge President Monson as a prophet, seer, and revelator. I wanted the saints in that country to have the full blessings of the restored gospel but at the moment I just couldn’t see a way, why and how this could be accomplished. I grew up in East Germany, that’s where my family joined the church. Harriet’s ancestors come from the same part of Germany. We wished these promises to be fulfilled, but we knew firsthand of the challenges of our country. Was it possible to receive these promised blessings at a time of such political and societal division and isolation at the time of the Cold War? I felt somehow like the man who cried out ‘Lord I believe. Help thou my unbelief. It was clear to me that the evidence of the world contradicted the word of an apostle of the Lord.
Almost a decade later, almost 10 years later, Harriet and I had all but forgotten this prophetic promise. We were attending the Swiss temple one day, accompanying a new married couple in their first time at the temple, when Harriet overheard a conversation between two elderly sisters, from East Germany. The elderly at the time were the only ones allowed to travel from the DDR to the Swiss temple as the regime back then felt sure and secure that these elderly people were no flight risk. One of these elderly sisters was talking to her friend about a very strange message that she had received the same morning. Her son had informed her that soon a temple would be built in the DDR. Harriet told me about it and said that this poor sister must have been very confused or lost her mind or the continuous wishful thinking to have a temple in East Germany. We felt sorry for these sisters, but also quite amused at the same time when we shared the episode with our friends. There wasn’t even a temple in West Germany. How could the church build one in the DDR?
A few days later, the Freiberg temple was announced. In June of 1985, President Hinckley dedicated in East Germany the Freiberg temple as the house of the Lord. It was the first temple behind the Iron Curtain, a temple in a communist land that almost everyone including me had said it would never be possible in our lifetime. The construction of the Freiberg temple is one of the great miracles in the history of the church in Europe. It’s a wonderful example of how God can make the impossible possible in any part of the world.
Now if you look at the world today where we have temples, who would have thought about the many temples that we’re receiving in Africa or in other places in the world. The lesson here is an important one. God knows what we do not. What may seem impossible for us is not impossible for him. What we mortals may write off as foolishness may be entered in the book of heaven as fact. God is good and faithful and he performs his work sometimes in ways that are not comprehensible to our mortal minds. He asks that we have a little faith, a little patience, that we believe. He asks us that we seek after him and believe in his word. It is my conviction that those who disregard the reality of heaven will ultimately find themselves on the wrong side of history. That is true for any issue, even the issues we are struggling with today.
I assume that all of you love to study history. Talking to you about the importance of history or the keeping of records would almost appear as selling snow to eskimos. As a slight variation of what I said at the beginning, let me add those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it and those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.
As you know, on April 6 1830, a very significant revelation was given to Joseph Smith, a prophet, in Fayette, New York. The revelation was given of the organization of the church at the home of Peter Whitmore Sr. Six men who had previously been baptized participated. By a unanimous vote, these persons expressed their desire and determination to officially organize the church. In this revelation, one half sentence has as great significance for our discussion today. It reads ‘Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.’ This is why we have a church recorder.
Almost 5 years later, in February of 1835, Joseph Smith met with 9 members of 12 and placed before the counsel ‘an item which would be of importance’. He told them that he had learned something from experience that gave him deep sorrow. Then he said ‘It is a fact that if I now had in my possession every decision that we had made upon important items of doctrine and duties since the commencement of this work, I would not part with them for any sum of money. But we have neglected to take minutes of such things, thinking perhaps that they would never benefit us afterwards which if we had them now would decide almost every point of doctrine which might be agitated. But this has been neglected and now we cannot bear record to the church and to the world of the great and glorious manifestations that have been made to us with that degree with power and authority we otherwise could if we now had these things to publish abroad.” Joseph Smith then urged the members of the 12 to keep records of important events and decisions. He said that if they would do this, even with items that seemed to have little or no worth, that later they would find them of infinite worth, not only to your brethren but they would be feast to your own souls.
Now with this being emphasized by the prophet Joseph, I thank you, every one of you for your efforts you are making to record the history of this church and its people. Sometimes we feel that our lives are mundane and trivial. Of what interest would my life be to anyone, we might say, and I think we all have said that at a certain time in our life. Those of you who are deeply involved in the recording and teaching of history can answer that question far better than I. You understand the worth of journals that may have seemed trivial and mundane to the person who wrote them at the time but are cherished and treasured years later. I commend you for all that you do to keep a history of the church and for your efforts and encouraging others to keep a record of their lives and their families. This is a cause that is of great importance to God’s work and to his church.
I’m indeed grateful for the marvelous work that is being done to prepare and to publish the Joseph Smith Papers. Learning about the real struggles and real successes of early church members and leaders is a very faith promoting process for me. We always need to remember that transparency and openness keep us clear of the negative side effects and measures being followed after by the world of secrecy or the cliche of faith-promoting rumours. Jesus taught the Jews ‘then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ Truth and transparency compliment each other. As we know, the glory of God is intelligence or in other words, light and truth.
My dear brothers and sisters, one of the most fascinating things about this mortal experience is that there is so much to learn. Isn’t it a remarkable feeling to belong to a church that not only embraces truth no matter the source, but teaches there’s much more to come. That God will yet reveal many great things and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. As a result we are humble about the truth we have. We understand that our knowledge is a work in progress, that the leaf we have before us is simply one microscopic snapshot, part of an infinitely vast forest of fascinating knowledge. Our little world, our small section of experience may be an accurate and true reflection of our reality but it is only an infinitesimal atom in the vast universe of what we will eventually know. Isn’t that exciting? Isn’t that a glorious concept? Isn’t it wonderous to belong to a church that teaches that infinite progress and eternal knowledge await those who set foot upon the path of discipleship of Jesus Christ and follow it in faithfulness and dedication?
My dear brothers and sisters, I wish you the best in this noble effort, as you pursue the great adventure of recording and clarifying history. The roads we travel are certainly not guaranteed to be easy or ever blessed, but if we keep traveling the pursuit of truth, it will always lead back to the ultimate truth. It will lead us to our Heavenly Father, who is the great historian, the great record-keeper, the great creator, the mentor and our friend. Of this I testify with all my heart and soul, and I leave you my blessings as an apostle of the Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ, our master, Amen.
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