Comer: A look at the rise of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Ryan Comer, Standard-Examiner
Recently, I’ve been watching previous general conference talks by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I love President Oaks because of his clarity and boldness. When I listen to him, I’m reminded of the fact that there is objective truth. He speaks hard things for some to hear at times, because we live in a society where people like to think of truth as subjective and according to each individual’s logic and feelings, but I genuinely believe that he does so in the spirit of love rather than in a spirit of condemnation.
But, I sort of digress. This isn’t supposed to be a President Oaks appreciation article, though I sort of desire to make it one at this point. Rather, it’s about something I realized after noticing how long ago his first general conference address came. It was 1971 when he was president of Brigham Young University. In 1971, the church had 13 dedicated temples. Most of those were in the United States, but there were temples in Canada, Switzerland, England and New Zealand. Since then, there has been a meteoric rise in temples, with 178 now dedicated in total. That includes 24 temples in South America, 14 temples in Europe, eight in Asia, six in Africa and five in Australia. On the horizon are temples in Thailand, Cambodia, India, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea and Nicaragua, just to name a few. In total, 236 temples have either been dedicated or have had groundbreakings, and another 79 have been announced for a grand total of 315.
It all brings to mind comments made by Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the church, back in 1898. Relating an experience with Joseph Smith during a meeting in April 1834, Woodruff said:
“When we got together the Prophet called upon the Elders of Israel with him to bear testimony of this work. When they got through the Prophet said, ‘Brethren, I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here tonight, but I want to say to you before the Lord, that you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it.’ I was rather surprised. He said, ‘It is only a little handful of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America — it will fill the world.’ Among other things he said, ‘It will fill the Rocky Mountains. … This people will go into the Rocky Mountains; they will there build temples to the Most High. They will raise up a posterity there, and the Latter-day Saints who dwell in these mountains will stand in the flesh until the coming of the Son of Man.”
How has Joseph Smith’s prophesy been fulfilled as much as it has been (Second Coming part still pending)? I’ve written before about my own personal reasons for believing, but what is it about the church that has caused it to have such tremendous global success? I can’t possibly do justice to answering such a question in this one article, but I can offer one observation that I believe goes a long way: Latter-day Saints strive to be true Christians.
Throughout the time I spent with my wife Shannon before she passed away, she frequently made clear her love for Jesus. She spoke hopefully and longingly for the day when she would be able to pass through the veil that separates this mortal life from the spirit world and be able to see him again.
At the moment it became clear her passing was imminent, I approached her at her bedside at the nursing home where she resided. “Are you ready to go back to Jesus?” I asked. Though not able to display much emotion or demonstrate much awareness, I thought for certain I saw a smile appear in her countenance. It felt like she understood exactly what I was saying and she was positively elated about it.
My wife’s love for Jesus is not just heartwarming and inspiring, it’s instructive to me as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We often are accused of not being Christian because we don’t believe in certain doctrines that other Christians accept. We are called heretics and told we believe in “a different Jesus.” There’s a lot I could say about that, but when I saw my wife’s love for Jesus through her desires and her countenance — which I can see in the lives of many, many other Latter-day Saints — I can only conclude that Latter-day Saints are indeed true Christians. It’s meaningful to me that although my wife revered prophets like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, as well as Book of Mormon and Bible prophets and apostles, she was singularly focused on one person who she wanted to see when she died, and that was he who suffered and died for her so that she could be resurrected with a perfect body and enjoy eternal life: Jesus Christ.
I recently read the following from an October 1987 general conference talk by President Oaks.
“Some who profess to be followers of Christ insist that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not Christians. Indeed, there are those who make their living attacking our church and its doctrines. I wish all of them could have the experience I shared recently.
“A friend who was making his first visit to Salt Lake City called on me in my office. He is a well-educated man and a devout and sincere Christian. Although we have not discussed this with each other, we both know that some leaders of his denomination have taught that members of our church are not Christians.
“After a short discussion on a matter of common interest, I told my friend I had something I would like him to see. We walked over to Temple Square and into the North Visitors’ Center. We viewed the pictures of Bible and Book of Mormon Apostles and prophets. Then we turned our steps up the inclined walkway to the second level. Here Thorvaldsen’s great statue of the risen Christ dominates a setting suggestive of the immensity of space and the grandeur of the creations of God.
“As we emerged and beheld this majestic likeness of the Christus, arms outstretched and hands showing the wounds of his crucifixion, my friend drew a sharp breath. We stood quietly for a few minutes, enjoying a reverent communion of worshipful thoughts about our Savior. Then, without further conversation, we made our way down to the street level. On the way we walked past the small diorama showing the Prophet Joseph Smith kneeling in the Sacred Grove.
“As we left Temple Square and took our leave of one another, my friend took me by the hand. ‘Thank you for showing me that,’ he said. ‘Now I understand something about your faith that I have never understood before.’ I hope that every person who has ever had doubts about whether we are Christians can achieve that same understanding.
“We love the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Messiah, our Savior and our Redeemer. His is the only name by which we can be saved (see Mosiah 3:17, Mosiah 5:8; D&C 18:23). We seek to serve him. We belong to his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our missionaries and members testify of Jesus Christ in many nations of the world. As the prophet Nephi wrote in the Book of Mormon, ‘We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins’ (2 Ne. 25:26).”
When you read those words, do you notice the clear distinction in how Christ is depicted compared to how Joseph Smith is depicted? It is not lost on me, and I’m sure Joseph would be the first to say it is completely appropriate and necessary. It was he who humbly declared, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”
How does this focus on Christ manifest itself in the lives of the members of the church? I could give many examples from my own life as well as from experiences I’ve heard shared by others, but I think one extremely popular podcaster, who happens to be nonreligious, said it well when he described Latter-day Saints as “the sweetest, nicest people.” Of course, nobody is perfect, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are as susceptible as those of any other religion or group to not always putting their best foot forward, but I have learned through my experiences that the vast majority of Latter-day Saints really do desire to emulate Christ.
When people realize just how much focus members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put on Christ, how they speak of him and how they strive to be like him, it is very hard to make an intellectually honest argument that they are not Christians, and I believe that the realization of this by those who humbly and with honest intent study the church and its doctrines is a key factor in the growth of the church. Millions upon millions worldwide have learned that being a Latter-day Saint does not mean you do not believe in Jesus. Exactly the opposite, in fact. And though teachings about Jesus may differ from mainstream Christianity, they’ve learned that such teachings are far from indefensible.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue to grow. There’s no reason to think otherwise. I was fascinated by an article I recently read about the construction of the Helena Montana Temple, which involved an Alabama-based company called BLOX. According to the release, the company can design and manufacture a temple in Alabama and put the pieces together at the temple site.
“This is how the temple in Helena was done,” the release said. “BLOX arranged the 10,000-square-foot, 96-foot-high temple into 25 separate modules. Each of those 25 pieces was created, shrink wrapped and carried by semitruck to the 4.8-acre site located at 1260 Otter Road in Helena, where workers stitched together the modules. The electrical, plumbing, heating, cooling and ventilation systems, along with exterior art deco stone cladding and tower assembly, were also done on site.”
Through this process, temples can be fully operational in a much shorter period of time. Indeed, the Helena Montana Temple took 805 days from announcement to dedication, the shortest amount of time since the Gila Valley Temple in Arizona, which was dedicated on May 23, 2010.
“We can’t take five or 10 years to build a temple now and keep up with President Nelson,” said W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric of the church, according to the release. “(We must find) ways to be more productive, to use sacred resources more effectively, to perhaps change the way we do things in some ways. We can’t build the Salt Lake Temple all over the world.”
It’s all tied back to Christ.
“We as members of the Church love temples. These buildings are sacred. They are built to the Lord,” said Elder Arnulfo Valenzuela of the North America Central Area Presidency, according to the release. “The purpose of every temple is to bring us closer to Jesus Christ and to help us understand God’s plan of happiness.”
Contact Ryan Comer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @rbcomer8388 and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rbcomer8388.