Years ago, shortly after being called to serve as a bishop, I was summoned to the stake president’s office for a discussion. My offense? A sister in the ward had stopped attending church because I had failed to shake her hand on my first Sunday in my new calling. My defense? I had no idea I was supposed to shake her hand. The stake president taught me a good lesson- sometimes it is necessary to apologize, even if you have done nothing wrong from your own perspective, in an effort to move the relationship forward. I apologized, and the sister started coming back to church.
Spencer W. Kimball, former prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is fondly remembered for his contribution to LDS literature in his seminal work “Miracle of Forgiveness.” As individuals we find forgiveness and the peace it brings when we recognize our sins, acknowledge them before God and, where necessary, His appointed servants, and then turn from those sins and move forward. I seem to recall from President Kimball’s book that our objective should be to flee any and all situations that would drag us back into the sins of the past and only by doing so will we make progress toward a better life. If we place ourselves in a situation where we are always being reminded of our past, of the sins we committed previously, of what awful, terrible people we used to be, we will never progress beyond that life, we will never be able to lift ourselves to new heights or make progress on our road to salvation.
The longest chapter of “Miracle of Forgiveness,” if memory serves, was the chapter on the need for us, as individuals, to forgive others their trespasses against us. The atonement of Jesus Christ serves not only to offer forgiveness to the sinner, but to the wronged. As victims of the sins of others we have the opportunity to lay all our anger, frustration, hurt, and anguish at the feet of the Savior and find the peace that comes from frankly forgiving the perpetrator.
In the eyes of some the Church has sinned by virtue of what might be called distasteful or disappointing historical practices. Perhaps the leadership of the Church has recognized the need to acknowledge the past in an effort to “move the relationship along,” as it were, and in its effort to do so has made available historical documents and discussions relating to a past some find difficult. It is kind of like the apology I needed to offer, whether I was wrong or not. However, just as it does no good for anyone to continually remind the individual sinner of his or her sinful past, it serves little purpose to the progress of the Church to dwell on the past. George Santayana is famous partly for his statement that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeating it. It is true that there is much to be learned from the past, both good and bad, but it is always best to dwell on the good rather than stomp through the muck and the mire of what we, as individuals, believe bad.
In the end, what value will come from dragging the past into the present? Mopping the floor with a dirty mop will not leave the floor clean. Is it not better for each of us to practice what the Savior taught and quickly forgive the sins of our fathers, and move on? How will anyone feel better by continually reminding everyone of all that was, in the eyes of some, problematic? This is not to say that in individual group or family discussions outside of Church these things cannot be discussed. Indeed, the prophets and apostles have encouraged us to take up deeper discussions of the doctrines of the Church in our homes and families. Using the plethora of historical data the Church has made available now enhances this opportunity. But when our discussion take us away from, rather than closer to the Church, the gospel, and the Savior, we need to determine whether or not those discussions are truly useful. I have always been taught that for a marriage to be successful, one should never bring up the past indiscretions of one’s spouse. Doing so never brings about a good ending.
My wife pointed out to me as we discussed this topic that she had nothing to do with the “sins” of the Church that currently dominate public discussion, and should therefore not be held responsible in any way for the history of the Church institutionally. But this is exactly what happens, by extension, when the critics of the Church speak out against the Church. Considering this idea I did a little research. It was reported in the April 1978 General Conference that Church membership through December 1977 stood at 3,966,000. According to the statistical report for the end of 2013, there were 15,082,028 members. In other words, there are 3.8 times more members today than prior to the June 1978 announcement that all worthy male members of the Church could hold the priesthood. Factoring for those who have died subsequent to the Official Declaration, this means that more than 11 million members had absolutely nothing to do with previous practices. As members of the Church leadership, only three remain as apostles and prophets: Thomas S Monson, Boyd K Packer, and L Tom Perry. And the number is even more staggering when you look at the statistical data of 1890 when the declaration to end polygamy came about. So why are we bent on making the current Church as a whole responsible?
In the end, we need to ask ourselves what will change because of these discussions. What will the future Church look like when we have finished our discussion on the sins of our fathers? Will the discussion ever end? Or will it continue well into the future as long as there are new members coming into the Church who may not know all of its history? How long will the discussion need to last before everyone agrees that all of the differences have been worked out and we can move forward? For me, the discussion ended when I apologized and the sister forgave me for failing to shake her hand, and I took up the practice every Sunday thereafter. Yes, I changed. And yes, the Church has changed. Polygamy is no longer practiced. Every worthy male member of the Church can now receive the priesthood.
Perhaps the discussion ends when each member of the Church practices the forgiveness the Savior taught, that we individually forgive others and the Church, that we place our burden of anger, frustration, anguish, and hurt at the feet of the Savior, and we move on to a more peaceful existence, the kind of peace the Savior promised.