Notes From The CESNUR Conference: Elder Robert S. Wood (Second Quorum of the Seventy, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

By June 15, 2009

Elder Wood was the concluding speaker at the 2009 CESNUR conference. He delivered his address at a closing banquet at the Alta Club Saturday evening. Stay tuned for notes from eight more sessions from CESNUR. For now, don’t miss notes from Massimo Introvigne on Mormonism and Twilight in Italy and Michael Homer on Oriana Fallaci and Anti-Mormonism.

I am delighted to be with you, I wish I could have attended the whole conference, but I’ve been in Virginia, and I arrive d this morning at 4 am, the plane was delayed a bit, but I made it in time for this evening. I should tell Dan, speaking of the Angelo Moroni, I remember some years ago standing in line at the Washington D. C. Temple open house, a man and his young son who were clearly not members were in line in front of me. The son pointed at the statue and said, “Daddy, who is that?”  The dad said, that’s the Angel Marriott, son [laughter]. So next time I saw Bill Marriott, I said you’ll never believe who’s up there on top of the temple [laughter].

I welcome you on behalf of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This is the world headquarters of the Church, but this is not a Utah church and most members do not live in Utah. It’s less and less a Rocky Mountain church and because of increased growth, it is not an American church. Most of its members do not live in N. America. Generally after the US, the most growth occurs in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Another fact I’m reticent to mention, one of Ronal Reagan’s aides, a member of a public affairs organization that we engaged, on one occasion I was talking to him on the phone. He said, You Mormons are just a bunch of republicans.  For him that was a good thing. Well, I said, to tell you the truth, most are socialists. Because most do not live in the US and they live in areas where they live in humble circumstances, and often vote for candidates in the local labor parties. But don’t let this get out to those living in Utah County! [Laughter] So the diversity you’ve seen is becoming even greater as the Church takes on a global dimension like never before. This is a city [Salt Lake City] of diverse religion.

The remarkable religiosity of the US compared to other advanced industrial countries. I think that it is because of the diversity of the US, grounded in the concept of national liberty and a constitutional forbidding of a national church.  Sometimes this country is called the marketplace of religion, an open enterprise, indeed, about 1/3 of most Americans no longer belong to the church of their parents. And about 30 percent have disaffiliated and may never reaffiliate, so there is broad movement. And this has always been the case in the US. I would argue that this is the foundation of the vibrancy of religious convictions in the US, which is different from amongst industrial countries. Belief in liberty in the US has not always been sufficient to secure religious tolerance. We have one other thing, which is very useful, space. People can move, a safety valve through most of our history. I often describe the western movement in those terms. In England, The Church of England, love it or leave it, so they left it and came to places like New England, they established their own intolerant colony. Massachusetts Bay, love it or leave it. So people like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, left. Rhode Island. Even there, you adhere to this religion or leave it.  So those who were different picked up until the most different people in American ended up in California [laugher]. I think the empirical evidence is overwhelming [laughter].

Conscience is not always private, often it’s communal. The rise of early Christianity had a dramatic political dimension. Church clashes really political in character.  The protestant reformation became intimately connected with the rise of the political system. In China, Falun Gong is not just a religious movement, the govt sees it threatening to its control. Putin’s Russia has in effect refloated the power of the Russian Orthodox church and it is becoming more a political interaction. Even Germany and Scientology in that light. Politics and religion get heavily involved in the life of the community, has a quasi political dimension.

We identify ourselves in terms of our religious conviction. The key issue has been, how do you accommodate the exercise of religious consciousness in a secular state in such a way that it doesn’t become an instrument of political combat?

This is the model that Salt Lake has come to. Strict adherence to disestablishment of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom to discuss in a public forum.

De Tocqueville [talked about] broad civil religion [in America], [with the majority] believing there is a creator, and that he does expect better of us, but not filling in many of the blanks.

This pluralism in the pursuit of faith along with the belief that there is providence that broods over all regions, de Tocqueville argued, is the genius of religions sentiment in the US. It probably will predestine the US to be more religiously inclined without compulsion than any of the other Modern societies.

I’ve often said this is the Americanization of religion. An Irish Catholic and an Irish-American Catholic are not necessarily the same. But in a real sense there is a process by which we learn to accommodate the richness of religious expression.

I commend the center [CESNUR] for studying new religions. What you are doing and have done is that you look at it not only as an analytical issue, but you look at if from an empathetic view as well. It’s virtually impossible to understand deep religious conviction without in some sense empathizing and sharing the sentiment, getting into the skin of those traditions.  Only then can you understand the phenomenon with which you are dealing. I’m intrigued by the title “new.”  What would it take to be come “old?”  I met a Sunni naval captain some years ago. Talked about Islam and Shia Islam.  He referred to them as a newfangled bunch of upstarts. So what does it take to be old? Potter Stewart, looking at Pornography said, famously, “I know it when I see it.”  In a sense that’s the most precise methodology you have.  Categorizing something that defies categorization.

Faith may be coexistent with humanity, but religion, or regions narrowly defined, always have beginnings, and hence all are at some point new. As new or at least different, beliefs and practices and faiths encounter those that were formerly new and are now aged. Often this encounter is not entirely friendly or easy. The old has the tendency to exclude and marginalize the new.  You’re looking also at the new, ,which can self isolate and exclude also.

But, we need to transcend that and understand that first, we’re talking about the most fundamental of all human activities: the relationship with the divine and the eternal, and secondarily, the encounter with our fellow human beings, who are common children of a common God. If we keep that in mind, we can enter the religious experience of many people and empathize with them. Most so-called new religious experiences, are not seen as new by their practitioners, mostly seen as reform, renaissance, or restoration, but in some sense, most operate within a tradition, and often tend to rise on the notion that the tradition needs to be renewed, reformed, or recovered in some sense. So it is important to understand the tradition within which the new religions arise and how the new religions see themselves in relation to the traditions from which they arise

So how do the LDS see themselves? Too many will see the LDS from the outside. Like those that write commentaries on Book of Mormon without reading it. That’s always the easiest way to do it.  It’s rue also of Latter-day Saints as they look at other people. In many Sunday School classes people say nonsensical things about other faiths. It is a  major obligation that we transcend that and accept the invitation to go to church [speaking to Dan-laughter], or you’ll never undusted the LDS any more than you’d understand the Presbyterians, or Unitarians.

Which reminds me of a joke. How do you drive a Unitarian out of town? Burn a question mark on their lawn [laughter].

In any case, it is an invitation to get inside.

JS himself was asked what Mormons believe.  A succinct answer, he said the fundamental principles are the testimony of the prophets and apostles of Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, rose from the dead and all other things are only appendages to it.

In addition to that, JS had a millenarian and a universalist perspective. He was meeting with a small group of members in a log home…This Church will fill North and South America, it will fill the world.

The LDS did not see themselves as an enclave escaping the world, but as the beginning of a worldwide movement, so Mormons are not and should not be Utahans, members of a particular political party, partisans of BYU and the U of U. We need a wider perspective on what’s really important, like Stanford vs. Berkeley [laugher].

Now, some time ago, I was going into the Salt Lake airport to go to Minneapolis. Two young men were waiting there who were going to serve as Mormon missionaries. I greeted them, I went and sat down with them on my left and two men sat on my right and looked at some notes I’d made. I’d been invited to the Mormon Battalion Association to speak. The man on my right was looking over my shoulder.  He said, I’m from Minneapolis, I went to Salt Lake City once. I’m Lutheran. What do you people believe about Jesus Christ? Well, we believe he’s the son of God, an instrument of the Father in all things, the creator of heaven and earth, redeemer of all man, himself God, testified to by the Holy Ghost. He said, Why, you people are Christians!  How do you differ from other Christians?  Then right as he asked that question, the announcement came over the intercom that we were going to be boarding. I turned to the elder at my left, Elder, you have 60 seconds, answer that question.  This young man did a magnificent job. But I was even more impressed by his companion. He said, I was a Baptist, I joined about two years ago, had wonderful Baptist parents, why let me tell you why. And he gave his personal testimony, his personal conviction. The man said, everything up until now has been abstract, this [the testimony of the Elder] is real.  That is the religious phenomenon. But we need to be very careful to avoid excessive focus on eccentricities. As we study any religion, we look at eccentricities, interview the disaffected, excessively look at historical anomalies, and therefore not get to the essence of what it is to be devout Catholic Presbyterian, or LDS. If we are to understand, we need to understand we’re talking about faith.

In a revelation to Joseph Smith, the Lord admonished him to, let your mind rest on the solemnities of eternity…

It is impossible to study as a detached other, only if one’s mind rests on the solemnities of eternity…

The life that will bear the inspection of men and God is the only certificate of true religion [quotation]. Again, welcome to Salt Lake City, thank you.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. “The LDS did not see themselves as an enclave escaping the world, but as the beginning of a worldwide movement, so Mormons are not and should not be Utahans, members of a particular political party, partisans of BYU and the U of U. We need a wider perspective on what?s really important, like Stanford vs. Berkeley [laugher].”

    I love Elder Wood. He has the sense of humor of a political scientist (which both him and I are).

    Thanks, Jared.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 15, 2009 @ 8:35 am

  2. Loved the humor. Thanks for the notes.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 15, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  3. Quite wonderful. Thanks, Jared, for your valuable work in providing readers with timely reports from historical conferences.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 15, 2009 @ 12:38 pm


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