April 1986: President Benson presides over his first General Conference. Did anyone listening to his humble little talk, called “Cleaning the Inner Vessel,” realize that it would send ripples through the Church and start a massive change in Church policy and doctrine?
President Benson said:
Unless we read the Book of Mormon and give heed to its teachings, the Lord has stated in section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants that the whole Church is under condemnation: “And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.” (D&C 84:56.) The Lord continues: “And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written.” (D&C 84:57.)
Now we not only need to say more about the Book of Mormon, but we need to do more with it. Why? The Lord answers: “That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.” (D&C 84:58.) We have felt that scourge and judgment!
The Prophet Joseph said that “the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than any other book.” (Book of Mormon, Introduction.) The Book of Mormon has not been, nor is it yet, the center of our personal study, family teaching, preaching, and missionary work. Of this we must repent.
Only a teenager at the time, this is one of the few general conferences of which I remember well. Our family concentrated our family scripture reading on The Book of Mormon shortly thereafter.
President Benson has actually delivered a similar message in his talks as President of the Quorum of the Twelve. In 1975 he had given a similar message but with tamer rhetoric. (link) In a 1985 talk he broached the subject again, with somewhat stronger rhetoric. (link) But it was the 1986 talk, after he was President of the Church, that we felt the real impact from this message. Soon President Benson became known as “The Book of Mormon President” due to his reoccurring emphasis of the Book of Mormon.
How did a re-emphasis and re-discovery of the Book of Mormon change the Church? It was after 1986 that the Church made marked changes. We emphasized:
- The scriptures as the basis for our teachings. (2 Nephi 4:15-16; 1 Nephi 19:23; Alma 13:20; Alma 17:2)
- The basic doctrines of salvation over folk-doctrines.
- Teachings on Jesus Christ as our Eternal God. (Mosiah 15:1-5; Title Page; 2 Nephi 26:12)
- Salvation through the Grace of Christ and not by the merit of our works. (Alma 22:14; 2 Ne. 2:8; Alma 34:12; 2 Ne. 9:7; Alma 34:8-16)
- The role of faith in salvation. (Alma 34:8-16; Ether 12:6; Moroni 7:38)
- The role of having a covenant relationship with Christ. (Mosiah 5:5-8; Mosiah 6:1-2; 1 Nephi 13:23; Mosiah 18:10, 13; Alma 7:15; 3 Nephi 21:22)
The Book of Mormon’s teachings on the above subjects are strong and certain. Looking back years later, Dalin H. Oaks reviewed how President Benson’s ministry had changed the face of the Church. (This talk is worth reading in its own right.) “The subject I believe we have neglected [that put the Church under condemnation as per President Benson’s Book of Mormon emphasis] is the Book of Mormon’s witness of the divinity and mission of Jesus Christ and our covenant relationship to him. …”
Oaks went on to say:
I believe that for a time and until recently our public talks and our literature were deficient in the frequency and depth with which they explained and rejoiced in those doctrinal subjects most closely related to the atonement of the Savior. A prominent gospel scholar saw this deficiency in our Church periodicals published in a 23-year period ending in 1983. I saw this same deficiency when I reviewed the subjects of general conference addresses during the decade ending in the mid-1980s.
It is interesting that mid-1980’s is also the time that many people see as when the Church tried to “fit in” better by attempting to “[depict] themselves as yet another Christian denomination alongside various other Protestant denominations…” (link)
But pretend for a moment that you are watching two different Churches go through two very different changes. Church A is re-discovering the teachings of the Book of Mormon and finding they should emphasize certain doctrines more that they coincidentally have in common with other Christian religions. Church B is “trying to fit it” by redefining itself to be more Protestant? Would these two very different changes look different to an observer? Is it possible that how one perceives the change tells us more about the observer than of the observed?
And yet, there should be some important and observable differences between Church A and Church B: Does anyone accuse the LDS Church of trying to “fit in” by emphasizing the sovereignty of God to predestinate salvation? (Alma 13:3; 2 Ne. 2: 27-29; 2 Ne. 10: 23; Hel 14:30-31) Does anyone accuse the Church of downplaying the importance of obedience in the salvation process? (2 Nephi 31:19-20, Moroni 6:4; Mosiah 5:5, 8) Does anyone accuse the Church of believing in “the priesthood of the believer” and downplaying their own authority claims? (Alma 6:1, 8; Alma 13; 2 Nephi 6:2; 3 Nephi 11:21) Does anyone accuse Mormons of believing that all you have to do is accept Christ, even right at the end of life, and you are “saved?” (Alma 34:32-37) Does anyone accuse Mormons of downplaying the importance of Baptism as modern Protestants do? (2 Nephi 31:5, 17; 3 Nephi 11:33-34)
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