My commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has both a spiritual and an intellectual component.
The simplest answer to why I believe is spiritual: when I live the Gospel, it feels more than right. Especially when I faithfully perform some difficult Church calling or apply Gospel principles in family or community life, I often feel a spiritual joy or a profound sense of peace. I have also experienced other memorable spiritual experiences, answers to desperate needs. They are real and meaningful to me but too subjective to be of much immediate value to someone else reading this. This “subjective empiricism,” however, is a central feature of LDS theology—the right of everyone to receive a spiritual witness if they are willing to test the Gospel.
That spiritual side of my conviction is buttressed by what I feel is intellectual evidence about the Church’s beneficial social impact, which deserves more attention from Church members and others than it has received in the past.
Social Impact of the Restored Gospel and Church
American fascination with individual liberty distracts us from the crucial role of social context and how that impacts our individual liberty. The scriptures are replete with evidence of this role: a recurring theme in scripture is exodus from a problematic social context to one where there is more freedom to live close to God’s commandments. The scriptures also contain numerous injunctions to nurture one’s parents and children.
The Church is a powerful spiritual and societal force for helping to implement Christ’s atonement. That requires some explaining. I understand Christ’s at-one-ment (unification) to be not only re-unification with God but also unification with our brothers and sisters past, present and future. As we help them to accept Christ’s atonement and Gospel, we become with Him “saviors on Mt. Zion.” That sense of not only drawing close to deity but building up and belonging to a benign, supportive social and emotional context is a goal of Gospel living. It provides, within certain constraints, what some call “freedom to”—that is, the conditions and support for initiative, creativity, and productive life that Eric Fromm (1941) describes as more important than “freedoms from” various external constraints.
Historian Arnold Toynbee provides a secular perspective on the crucial role of Christ’s Gospel in healing the ancient Roman world and beyond. Toynbee saw early Christianity as a timely solution to a crippling split of the decadent Roman Empire into a cruel rich elite versus oppressed workers. People knew who they were and had intense family and feudal ties, but war, cruelty, and oppression of the poor were rampant and socially destructive. Christ’s doctrine of love, service, and humility offered clearly needed antidotes to the arrogance of power and the explosive hatred of master and slave (Toynbee 1946).
Today, the Restored Church is a no less needed unifier for today’s atomized post-industrial society, which may display less raw cruelty and extremes of wealth and poverty than did Roman society, although both problems are growing fast enough. Even more troubling, however is post-industrial individuals’ alienation from ancestors, peers, and posterity (Bellah, et al. 1985). One could say that we suffer from diachronic (across time) loneliness as well as synchronic (contemporary) anomie.
Some individualists, however, are not interested in collaboration, focusing on the costs rather than the benefits of cooperation, and reveling in a rugged loneliness. Their alienation often breeds greed and selfishness, labeled as “ambition” and “self-empowerment,” and raised to the level of virtue, a panacea for all social ills (Rand 1961). The popularity of this explicitly anti-Christian doctrine in America continues to astound me.
More frequently, loss of the village, tribe, clan, and family units—the context of human life for millennia—induces people to seek for substitute social groups. Many of these replacements are benign, such as internet social networking, workplace units, and therapy groups; but many others, like urban street gangs, racial supremacist groups, and drug cartels, are clearly maladaptive. Most religions offer their congregations as havens for the lonely crowd.
The LDS Church organizes its members into unusually small congregations: tribal-sized units of 50-300 members with high face-to-face interaction and mutual responsibility. The small size of these units (called wards or branches) is intentional and is crucial to their success in integrating its members. The small unit size, lay clergy, and assignment of every active member to some church “calling” differs radically from most typical Christian churches’ larger congregations, including America’s highly publicized evangelical mega-churches. Many LDS wards and branches quite effectively knit congregants together (synchronic unification), whenever enough of them are willing to apply the Gospel of love and to accept their opportunities for active participation in the life of the ward/branch.
As a student of Russian society and as a mission president in post-Soviet Russia, I often saw the powerful magnetism of these congregations. Good branches met an enormous need in that culture, reminding me of the power of Russian village life (the mir) a century ago, and the old Russian saying “Na miru i smert’ krasna.” [Even death is beautiful if you are with your people].
Overcoming Babel: the Permanent Pentecost of Missionary Work
Another aspect of the synchronic unifying power of Christ’s Church is illustrated by the Pentecost mentioned in Acts in the New Testament. During that remarkable spiritual event, people of many nationalities heard the Gospel in their own language and were brought into the early Church. The robust LDS missionary program represents a sort of permanent Pentecost seeking to overcome cultural and linguistic divisions to bring diverse people together. At any given time, from 50-60,000 volunteer LDS missionaries are spending from 18-24 months in over sixty countries of the globe, inviting strangers into the Church and doing humanitarian service.
Christ’s Gospel spread via this extraordinary missionary program has great power to overcome nationalist barriers between countries. An example of this is the role that Finns played in bringing the Gospel to the Russians, despite deep historic animosity between the two nations. In November of 1939, Soviet troops had invaded Finland, resulting in nearly continuous fighting through 1944. That left an understandable legacy of Finnish hatred for Russians. During my mission to Finland in the early 1960s, I often witnessed this and found that astonishingly few Finns studied Russian, despite powerful economic reasons to do so. I once asked an active Finnish Communist how he would feel if Russians returned to take over Finland. He shook his fist and angrily growled “Ei perkele tulee!” [That devil can’t come here!] However, in 1989, when Church leaders called young Finnish members to teach the Gospel to Russians and others, they eagerly accepted, seeming to forget that legacy of hate completely. In the following months they traveled regularly to the USSR, and befriended and taught many Russians and others who later became Church leaders in Vyborg, Leningrad, and Talinn (Browning 1997).
Much has been written, both positive and negative, about the effects of missionary work on those proselytized. Far less, however, has been written about the impact of mission work on those doing it. That impact is especially apparent among LDS members, a large fraction of whom serve missions and who often become fervent friends and unofficial ambassadors of the people with whom they have served.
The number of different foreign languages learned by LDS youth on missions is truly remarkable, ranging from Albanian to Vietnamese. At one point recently the Provo Missionary Training Center was teaching 48 different languages. While LDS missionaries return with widely varying levels of speaking skill, they frequently have reached a fluency equal to that of graduates of U.S. university language programs. These young returned missionaries’ positive impact on university language programs in America’s Intermountain West is considerable, and foreigners visiting Utah are frequently astonished by the number of people who fluently speak their languages in the middle of the Great American Desert. LDS youth from many countries participate in this remarkable program, returning to their home countries to provide similar benefits there and doing their part to improve international understanding.
Unity with and concern for descendants is constantly urged on LDS members. In an age of incessant, ephemeral updates and short-lived trial marriages, where too many adults focus on finding and protecting their “space,” concentrate on their careers, and undervalue parental sacrifice, by contrast the LDS Church constantly emphasizes child care as part of eternal family life. Weekly family night, parenting classes in Sunday school, and constant reiteration of the value of the family are featured in LDS teachings and programs world-wide. If the family is the best socializing organ and if—as numerous studies indicate—nothing has the effect on academic success that family life does, then this diachronic unification has a profound synchronic effect as well.
Unity with ancestors is equally stressed to LDS congregations. Family history, digitizing of handwritten records to make them widely available, and temple work are all constantly urged on church members. One result is an extraordinary sense of meaning and belonging among elderly Latter-day Saints involved in any or all of the above. Another result is that the Church’s Family History Library and its enormous archives have grown to become a unique world treasure not only for those seeking their ancestors, but also for international medical researchers. Non-LDS users of these archives actually exceed the number of LDS users.
Whereas some may see this as focusing on the dead to the neglect of the living, attention to ancestors can have powerful positive effects on our understanding of our place in the world, as expressed by a new father contemplating the meaning of his son in Llewellyn’s classic novel How Green Was My Valley (1962):
I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who are to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front, to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond.
And their eyes were my eyes.
As I felt, so they had felt, and were to feel, as then, so now, as to-morrow and forever. Then I was not afraid, for I was in a long line that had no beginning, and no end, and the hand of his father grasped my father’s hand, and his hand was in mine, and my unborn son took my right hand, and all, up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was, to Time That Is, and is not yet, raised their hands to show the link, and we found that we were one, born of Woman, Son of Man, had in the Image, fashioned in the Womb by the Will of God, the eternal Father.
I was of them, they were of me, and in me, and I in all of them.
I believe in the Restored Gospel for many spiritual as well as intellectual reasons, not all of which are listed above. As wonderful as that Gospel is, I confess no less admiration for the Church’s unusual means of assisting Christ’s at-one-ment and believe those means are evidence of divine inspiration and guidance. Admittedly, Mormons could and should practice the Gospel much better and try to be real Latter-day Saints. Of course, the LDS Church has no monopoly on the above-mentioned activities, and its efforts have achieved neither the perfection nor sufficient breadth to influence more than a tiny fraction of humanity. However, in a world of ephemera and atomization, its little congregations and enormous missionary program do help knit Latter-day Saints together around the world, while the Church’s efforts to strengthen families and family history work promote an eternal sense of belonging.
Bellah, Robert, et al., Habits of the Heart. New York: Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1985.
Browning, Gary L. Russia and the Restored Gospel. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997, 24-30.
Fromm, Eric. Escape from Freedom. New York: Avon Books, 1941.
Llewellyn, Richard. How Green Was My Valley. New York: The Macmillan Co, 1962, 297.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Penguin/Signet: 1957/1996.
Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by D.C. Somervell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946, 379.
Don Jarvis was born in Ithaca, New York, and raised in Iowa. He served a mission to Finland 1959-62 and graduated from Brigham Young University in 1964 with a major in Russian and a minor in political science. After teaching high school in Utah for two years, he studied at the Ohio State University, earning a Ph.D. in foreign language education in 1970 with an emphasis on Russian. He joined the faculty of BYU that same year, where he taught until retiring in 2004.
At BYU he served as chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic languages, which has by far the largest university Russian language program in North America. He also served there as the founding director of the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, director of General Education, and co-founder of the Foreign Language House program. He is co-author of the best-selling first-year Russian language materials entitled Nachalo (McGraw-Hill, 1996, 2002) and other publications dealing with language teaching and university faculty development, including Junior Faculty Development: A Handbook (Modern Language Association, 1991).
A past president of the two main US professional organizations for Russian professors, he has consulted for many universities, professional organizations, and government agencies.
From 1996-98, Don and his wife Janelle supervised the Russia Moscow Mission of the LDS Church, and then from 1998 to 1999, the Russia Yekaterinburg Mission. From September 2005 to March 2007 they served a humanitarian mission for the Church in Belarus.
Don and Janelle have six children and twenty-three grandchildren. They are active in community affairs, volunteering with the Provo School District to supervise teachers of English to adult speakers of other languages. They also participate actively in local politics.