“The present is an age of progress, of change, of rapid advance, and of wonderful revolutions.”
“The very foundations of society—social, political, commercial, moral and religious—seem to be shaken as with a mighty earthquake, from center to circumference. All things tremble, creation groans, the world is in travail and pains to be delivered.”
“A new era has dawned upon our planet, and is advancing with accelerated force, with giant strides.”
These four sentences sum up the chaos and promise affecting us in the first decade of a new century and a new millennium. Surprisingly, they were not written any time recently. They were actually written in 1855 by Parley P. Pratt, an apostle in the Mormon Church and an associate of Joseph Smith.
These words were the opening sentences to his book Key To the Science of Theology. This book, which is a mixture of missionary tract and theological textbook, was written to explain why the Lord called Joseph Smith to be a prophet in this era of human history.
Parenthetically, the “Why?” questions are usually the most crucial. President Boyd K. Packer, the president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles in the Mormon Church, advised teachers to ask “So what?” before they teach a principle. It puts the principle in context, and focuses both student and teacher on its importance.
But back to Elder Pratt’s words:
“The railroads and the steamboats, with their progressive improvements in speed, safety and convenience, are extending and multiplying the means of travel, of trade, of association and intercommunications between countries whose inhabitants have been comparatively unknown to or estranged from each other.”
“But, as if even these means were too slow for the Godlike aspirations, the mighty throes of human thought and its struggles for light and expansion, man seizes the lightning, tames and subdues it, and makes it the bearer of his thoughts and dispatches. While these things are in progress by one portion of mankind, another learns to seize and control a sunbeam, in a manner subservient to the progress of the fine arts, and by which means a man performs in a minute the work which a short time since would have employed the most active years of a lifetime.”
The same thing could be said about the Internet, household computers, cell phones, PDAs, and microwave ovens. So much is new! Those of use who grew up without all of these creature comforts and labor-saving devices can gauge how much society and even civilization has changed over the space of a few decades.
“While every science, every art is being developed; while the mind is awakened to new thoughts; while the windows of heaven are opened, as it were, and the profound depths of human intellect are stirred, moved from the foundation on all other subjects, religious knowledge seems at a standstill.”
In other words, Elder Pratt asserted that everything was keeping up with the times, except religion.
“The creeds of the fathers seem to have been cast in the mold of other ages, to be adapted to a more narrow sphere of intellectual development, and to be composed of material too much resembling cast iron; or, at least, not sufficiently elastic to expand with the expansion of mind, to grow with the growth, and advance with the progressive principles of the age.”
Those of the Nineteenth Century were experiencing what Alvin Toffler called “future shock.” Culture shock happens when a person is suddenly immersed in a foreign environment. Future shock is a similar phenomenon, except that the change is not with a culture but with technology and change in general—and too much of it.
The Industrial Age was the first instance of future shock. We had a mixture of scientists, inventors, and businessmen who revolutionized the world with electricity, phonographs, photographs, telegraphs, radio, airplanes, automobiles, and thousands of other smaller things, such as the sewing machine, frozen foods, the steam engine, and the cotton gin.
Our age—call it the Space Age, the Information Age, or the Age of “Jihad Versus McWorld”—has had a similar revolution in the area of semiconductors, microchips, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and information services. Again, talk to your grandparents about what they did with their free time before, during, and after the Great Depression and World War II. There was no Nintendo, no surfing of the Internet or cable channels, and none of our diverting distractions.
Consequently many people today are asking the same questions that they did in 1855. Why are the established religions and the traditional faiths not keeping up with the times? Is it time for another Protestant Revolution? And if so, how do we build a consensus with this “reinvented” faith?
Elder Pratt addresses this issue:
“For these reasons, perhaps more than any other, the master spirits of the age are breaking loose from the old moorings and withdrawing from established and venerated systems, by which means society is distracted, divided, broken up, thrown, as it were, into a chaos of confused, disorganized individualization, without a standard or rallying point, without a nucleus by which to concentrate or reorganize this chaotic mass, these atoms of thought.”
This is one of the fundamental questions of revolutions: how far do you go? The American Revolution, for instance, was a moderate one. The colonies were mostly self-sufficient and self-governing to begin with. And after the Peace of Paris, the United States tried to normalize relations with Great Britain as soon a possible.
The French Revolution, on the other hand, went as extreme as was humanly possible. Everything was up for grabs, heads rolled, and they even restarted the calendar to memorialize the revolution. Some historians believe that Napoleon’s rise to power helped stabilize the fringe and lunatic elements that were running amok. And the same can be said about the free-for-all and eventual rise of Stalin (at the expense of Trotsky) in the Soviet Union. Revolutions, by going too far, can be counterproductive.
Elder Pratt, then, has two theses. One, the times have changed so much that an equal revolution in religion was in order. Two, we need to have a calm and rational revolution, or things will get out of hand.
Elder Pratt then makes the case for Joseph Smith:
“One thing is certain, according to ancient prophecy, and agreeable to the general expectation of this and other ages, the day approaches which will flood the earth with the pure principles of religious knowledge; a day when none will have to teach his neighbor, saying, Know ye the Lord; for all persons shall know Him from the least to the greatest.”
“It should be a matter of serious thought and investigation—without respect to party, sect or creed, whether there should not, in the very nature of circumstances, and future Millennial hopes, be an entire remodeling, or reorganization of religious society, upon the broad basis of revealed knowledge, tangible fact, and philosophical, scientific and spiritual Truth—a universal ‘standard,’ of immutable Truth, instead of numberless systems founded on uncertainty, opinion, mere human impression or conjecture.”
We actually see a revolution going on nowadays. On one hand there are many attempts to modernize church services to accommodate politically correct trends. On the other, there is a call to orthodoxy, or even a paleo-orthodoxy, to keep the churches closely moored to their theological docks.
Joseph Smith supplies a third way. In his own words, he explained:
“I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.” (“Chapter 44: The Restoration of All Things: The Dispensation of the Fulness of Times,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 507–16.)
In effect, Joseph Smith said, yes there does need to be a revolution, but it has to come from outside the traditional system. As Christ said, you cannot put new wine in old bottles. As a prophet called of God, I have this new wine, and the Mormon Church is the new bottle.
But there still exists the problem of how we are to choose among so many voices? That is where truth comes in. God is the God of all truth. He loves us. He wants us to know, so He asks us to pray over these serious and complex matters. That way, we can know for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.
In the conclusion to the preface, Elder Pratt affirms this idea:
“Can anything short of such a standard unite society, enlighten the world, establish real peace, brotherhood and fellowship, and put a final end to all religious ignorance, superstition, jargon, or discord? Is not a difference of opinion, or a disagreement on any given subject, a proof positive of existing ignorance, or want of light or information, on the part of the parties disagreeing? If so, the present age is certainly in the dark, or, in a great measure, ignorant on religious subjects. A knowledge of the Truth can alone bring the desired union and bid discord cease. If the Scriptures be true, it is not religious opinion which will cover the earth, and universally pervade every bosom, but it is a KNOWLEDGE, ‘The knowledge of God.’ ‘God is Truth.’ To know Him, is to know the Truth.”
Joseph Smith read in the Bible, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5) And he also read, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Matthew 7:7). He had his prayers answered precisely because he went to the fountain of all truth—God Himself.
That promise is still in force. If we feel disjointed or disoriented by the cultural upheavals and societal earthquakes, there is a place we can go to find answers. He is always available, He is always stable, and He wants to talk to us.