Nels Nelson on LDS Preaching, Teaching, and the Life of the Mind

I’ve been thinking a good bit, and collecting various notes and ideas, around something Betsy VanDenBerghe said to me on Facebook.

What comes out of our mouths, as Jesus said, reflects the state of our hearts and minds, what we’ve been reading and contemplating, and coming to conclusions about…. The quality of your talk, sermon, or lesson will not exceed the quality of what you’ve been reading and thinking about.

If our spiritual diet mostly consists of Twinkies, social media, and a few minutes of scripture before bed, well, that’s not good for the quality of our discussions with family, friends, neighbors, and students.

Nels L. Nelson, from the Kofford reprint

In that light, Nels Nelson’s 1894 article in The Contributor demonstrates that this has long been a problem. Nelson, an early LDS academic, served as BYU’s Department Chairman of Philosophy from 1906 to 1909, also teaching English, public speaking, and religion. Although written 126 years ago,  Nelson’s critique of LDS preaching— which he characterized by glib generalities, intellectual isolationism and laziness, and self-congratulatory rhetoric— remains just as relevant and applicable today. Below, some lightly edited excerpts with my editorial insertions. Italics are original, underlining is mine.

what should the mind be stored with?…. every Sunday school child can truly answer: the word of God…. ‘The words of life’…. But what is meant….

Suppose we say the words of life signify ‘all that God has revealed, and all that He will reveal.’ What does the expression mean?— the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other such revelations? Surely it must mean more than this. What of the truths and beauties of history, of literature, and of science?

So, we need to read broadly and deeply?

Scarcely a Sunday passes that we do not hear some general expression of this as: ‘The gospel [includes] all that is good and true in the world and in all the eternities.’ The thought is turned over and over, and illustrated by calling in the heathen, the sectarian, the infidel, and even the devil himself to contribute what truths they may have, to our system. And thus we glory… over the thought that God has been so kind to us, that all the beautiful, the good, and the true in the universe is ours— ours to have and to enjoy.

But we do not enjoy. Too often, we merely brag about the greatness and extent of our riches.
‘All the truths of history,’ says the Elder enthusiastically, ‘are ours, and God gives us His Spirit to understand them.’
Is that so? Stop, preacher, I’m overwhelmed with the multitude of these truths that are ours…. Give me one, just one of these truths, with its human bearings and relations. Clothe it in mortal garb and story form as Christ did….

Give me, then, some of these sublime lessons. Show me the loving Father in one of his works. Open my eyes to these beauties of nature….

But no; you pass on still telling of the wealth that is ours. Not one specific idea! Words, words, words. Alas, alas! ‘Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.’”

Is it not pitiable to be told that this glorious gospel of ours embraces all the truths known to man, and immediately thereafter have to sit and listen for an indefinite period to the same old ideas dressed in the same old clothes?

On that note, President Kimball pleaded for “Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents [to] take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church…. I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been
largely uninformed [Elder Holland used the word “uninspired”]. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time when they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come.”
– My posts tagged “teaching”

Nelson continued.

Might not a cynic be pardoned if he sat through such a meeting drawing silent conclusions like these: ‘Is that so? Well, I don’t think all the truths in the world have been canvassed in this ward; suppose we have a fresh one or two today.’….if all the good mental eatables in the universe belong to this gospel, why have we got to sit down today to husks?
‘Shakespeare and Milton inspired?’ Heard it before. Now, I wonder if you’re going to give us a single inspired passage to prove it? No. Did you ever read a page of Milton or Shakespeare? I’m afraid you’re one of the nine out of every ten, that praise but never read Shakespeare or Milton. They’d give you ideas.

He continues.

He who cannot get down to specific ideas demonstrate the fact that so far as thinking is concerned, his mind is still inert; and ability to think is certainly required of one whose duty is to arouse thoughts and produce convictions in others [i.e. preachers, missionaries, speakers.]
Besides, this dwelling upon generalities, and constantly cataloguing and enumerating the points in which we surpass the isms of the sectarian world, not infrequently begets a pride as superficial and empty as that of the biblio-maniac, who is always buying books and committing to memory their names, but who never reads one. This self-complacency is the most fatal malady a mind can get.

How often and easily have we had a lesson in church turn to the obvious evils and failings of those people, and then glibly contrast them with the general glories of the Gospel? Well, that’s pride and laziness, says Nelson. (FWIW, I agree.)

[One says,] ‘The cure for all the ills that curse society is to be found in the Gospel, and only in the Gospel. The vain philosophies of men only lead mankind farther away from the light.’ This may be true. It is no purpose of mine to dispute it if it were not. Here we have a sweeping generalization, very gratifying to minds constituted like the one that gave utterance to it. Analyze that gratification for a moment. Does it come from perception of truth? No. It comes from praising our side and hitting the other side. What good comes from such a remark? How are those who heard it made better able to realize in acts the truth which the generalization sets forth? Absolutely no better, unless it be counted a gain to have a better opinion of ourselves and a worse one of our opponents.

That’s the earliest reference to “philosophies of men” I’ve found yet, in LDS literature, and it’s a critique of it as a lazy self-serving idea. I cited it in a conference paper on the Church as a “rough stone rolling.”

But the awakened mind is not satisfied with such generalities. Here is an Elder that makes reckless and sweeping assertions on three points: ( 1 ) ills that curse society ( 2 ) cures in the gospel for such ills; (3) the vain philosophies of men. Surely the preacher who dares thus generalize must have concrete ideas on these points.
‘Tell us, Mr. Preacher, which are the ills that curse society? Well, name one ill? Why is it an ill? Do all men believe it such? What is the extent of it? To what sex, and age, and class of people does it do harm? What causes it? What are its effects, as already observed— upon man physically, mentally, morally, socially, religiously? Its ultimate effects if not eradicated?
The gospel, you say, has a cure. I believe you, because of my faith in God. Please point out this cure. I want to find it, for I see this same evil right in our own midst. Don’t tell me it is in the gospel, tell me where it is, what it is. That is your business as a preacher. I am anxious to apply this cure. No, it will not do to tell men to ‘live according to the gospel.’ That merely shifts the question. You must draw from the teachings of the gospel a cure just as far-reaching and specific as is the evil.
Then I notice you make a sweeping denunciation of the philosophies that attempt to deal with these evils. I was not prepared to go so far, as I have read only a few of them. Of course, you have weighed them all in the balance and found them wanting….— [you] haven’t read any of them? Wouldn’t waste time on them? The gospel [is] enough for you?’ (—!—!!—!!!)”

Nelson was frustrated at LDS laziness in claiming cultural and religious superiority… but not actually using LDS truths to do anything but gloat, nor actually bothering to learn about what was being critiqued, because “the gospel is enough.”

He was

convinced that from a variety of circumstances not least of which is a sanctimonious self-sufficiency, we are scarcely beyond the word-period [?] in the elaboration of these truths.”

That is, “we possess The Gospel… and possession is all we need.” Not thought. Not detailed application. Like today, he looked back into the past and thought he saw a golden age of LDS preaching.

 [Compared to the kinds of sermons in the Journal of Discourses,] we have gained nothing…. and lost much of the freshness and vigor of those early efforts, and become more and more contented with glittering generalities.

That’s a great phrase.

Why should we not enter into this field, and grapple hand to hand with these evils. We actually have the remedy. The science and philosophy of the world… remains to be re-written from the Latter-day Saint standpoint.

However, in order to be effective,

These [LDS] principles must be specialized, must be made concrete, must be dressed in the garb of the [current] century. It will not do to stand aloof from intelligent men and poke faith, repentance, and baptism at them with a long stick. Pardon the remark, if it seems irreverent. But is not this what we do when we refuse to enter into their councils, and treat with scorn what they hold dear: when we say, in effect: ‘throw all those things down! They are worthless. About face!’

So, perhaps missionary work and preaching might be more effective if we can speak peoples’ culture and language, and know enough about their own beliefs that we don’t make ourselves look like arrogant ignoramuses? (Check out Korihor’s Notes on Ineffective Missionary Work.)

The principles of the gospel can never become antiquated while the universe is organized as it is. But does it occur to the ordinary missionary that perhaps the garb of these principles, the statement, explanation, and illustration of them may? Does it occur to every Elder that faith in God may be taught in as many ways as there are blades of grass on the hillside?”
‘Use a little guile’ said Paul. [2 Co 12:16?] It seems to me that it is not our business as missionaries to make men bend to the stiffness which we mistake for our dignity. We should so love mankind as to make our ministration of the word fit their wants and necessities.

Here, Nelson seems to be talking about accommodating our message to the people, as Paul did, particularly at Corinth.

I suspect—I hope—this next part is tongue-in-cheek. He concludes,

Get them by hook or crook to begin to investigate— only get them. Truth will take care of the rest. In conclusion, let me say to my fellow-laborers, I scarcely expect your plaudits for the merciless way I have spoken of a certain kind of preaching that abounds today. Perhaps I am unjust. It is quite certain that I shall be misunderstood. Above all, I have a savage desire to wake up certain of us that are steeped… in a vain [intellectual] self-sufficiency that bars all hope of progress and growth. Even as a people, we are great admirers of ourselves.

Nelson practiced what he preached. In 1904, he published Scientific Aspects of Mormonism, which was “financially underwritten by the First Presidency as a missionary tract, basically accepting of many fundamentals of evolution.” He was trying hard to address the issues of the day with specific LDS principles. (See discussion here, in Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism.)

My take-aways?

  1. Read broadly. If you’re looking for suggestions, I have a tag for Gospel Doctrine resources and books in general, available from the “Post Category” menu at the left.
  2. If you’re not going to read broadly, don’t talk about what you don’t know, particularly if it’s someone else’s religion.
  3. Avoid lazy and complacent generalities about how we have all truth, and isn’t it wonderful, and they just have “philosophies of men.”
  4. Be specific in preaching
  5. A message that is specific and adapted to the hearer’s needs, culture, background, and time period, will be far more effective. And interesting.
  6. The gospel may have the answers to society’s ills, but they need to be carefully diagnosed and applied

I opened with Betsy’s comment, and it makes a great closing summary.

What comes out of our mouths, as Jesus said, reflects the state of our hearts and minds, what we’ve been reading and contemplating, and coming to conclusions about…. The quality of your talk, sermon, or lesson will not exceed the quality of what you’ve been reading and thinking about.

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4 thoughts on “Nels Nelson on LDS Preaching, Teaching, and the Life of the Mind

  1. Thanks Ben. I’ve followed you for some time. Thanks for the article.

    Kind Regards,

    Mark Bellows

    Get Outlook for iOS ________________________________

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    1. The Church is very concerned about elitism, about creating different intellectual “tiers” of members. (See my post here, for example.) Of course, local wards can adapt. In my University of Chicago ward, we had three classes that people self-sorted into.

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  2. Ben, the fact that the problem of which you speak was prevalent in the church a 130+ years ago and not much has changed in the interim, gives us little cause for hope.

    Our manuals, which consist primarily of scriptural aphorisms decontextualized in order to proof-text a particular doctrine or belief, only perpetuate the problem. At least the church, when it introduced the Come Follow Me Manuals, made no pretext about them being otherwise when the first lesson declared: “You are responsible for your own learning.” In other words, “We’re not going to engage seriously with scriptures, so you’re on your own.”

    Last year, I began circulating essays to the members of my ward via our ward listserv that offered scriptural interpretations at odds, in or whole in part, with those found in the manual, though they were faith promoting. A few months ago I received a phone call from my bishop telling me to cease and desist.

    Apparently, a half dozen members had told him they were confused by my essays (“Were they endorsed by the bishopric?”) or thought they were too long. I am not making this up. As one of my favorite 20th-century philosophers, Colonel Potter, would say: “horse hockey.” The cognitive dissonance experienced by these folks when they read my ideas was simply too much.

    In response, I started a website (thewellexaminedlife.com) where I have continued my “heretical” activities. But I write primarily for my own learning and edification. I have no illusion about changing anything.

    I greatly admire your half-glass-full attitude as you continue to push for change within the church correlation and education departments, though, as we saw a few months ago, even your patience has its limits. 🙂 I, however, am simply too jaded and tired to join you.

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