Editor's note: This video conversation is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought. This conversation between Latter-day Saint scholar Terryl Givens and LDS Church historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen was produced by the Faith Matters Foundation. The views expressed in these and future conversation are those of the participants.
During his 24 years as a beloved LDS general authority and official church historian, Elder Marlin K. Jensen presided over a historic shift toward greater openness in the LDS Church’s approach to its history.
In this conversation with Terryl Givens, we get an intimate glimpse into Elder Jensen’s personal life and thoughts, including:
- How loving and serving his older brother instilled a determination to include “those who are different.”
- The spiritual experiences that led him to consecrate his life to serving in the church.
- His wish for more “overtly spiritual” church experiences.
- How our spiritual lives can be enriched by people, practices and writings from other religious traditions.
- The challenges and the fruits of complete openness and transparency in telling the history of the church.
- The urgent need to embrace those who are different or “don’t meet the norm” in the church.
- His stirring witness of Christ.
An attorney by profession who is more at home on the ranch, Elder Jensen became one of the public faces of Mormonism during what came to be called the “Mormon Moment.” He was featured prominently on the 2007 PBS series "The Mormons."
Under his direction as church historian, dramatic advances were made in church history, including creation of the Joseph Smith Papers project, construction of the new Church History Museum next to Temple Square, and greater access to scholars on a number of fronts. Terryl Givens once wrote of Elder Jensen: "Marlin Jensen has done more to further the cause of Mormon history than any person of the current generation."
As an LDS general authority and official Church Historian, Marlin K. Jensen presided over a historic shift toward greater openness in the Mormon church’s approach to its history.
We will share an intimate glimpse into Elder Jensen’s personal life, which has been shaped by tragedy, humility, deep faith, and devoted service.
Join Terryl Givens for this very personal conversation with Elder Marlin Jensen.
Terryl Givens: Hello and welcome to the first installment of Conversations with Terryl Givens, a podcast series sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation and devoted to the exploration of the experience of lived Mormonism as a catalyst to the abundant life and the public good.
I’m delighted to have with us today one of my dear friends, Elder Marlin Jensen, past Church Historian and Seventy emeritus. Thank you for coming.
Elder Jensen: My honor, Terryl; thanks for inviting me.
Terryl Givens: Elder Jensen, you’re one of the most well-known and beloved faces in Mormonism and probably have been ever since the PBS documentary on the Mormons some years back.
For those who aren’t familiar with you and your past record of service in the Church, give us a quick summary of how your obituary might read, if that’s not too morbid a way to think about how you might be remembered.
Elder Jensen: I always hoped it would say, “He died of significance,” whatever that means. I think it would probably point out that I’m the fifth-generation farmer in a little valley in Northern Utah. I think it would make reference to my wife of 50 years (as of a week ago) —
Terryl Given: Congratulations.
Elder Jensen: Thank you — and our eight children and now 31 grandchildren. It would have some reference, I suppose, to my church service. I was very blessed, I thought, to be among the first teachers of German at the Language Training Mission when I returned from my mission. I’ve always viewed that as one of my choicest Church experiences.
Later I became a member of a bishopric when I was going to law school at the University of Utah; then when we graduated and went back to this little valley where we live, I was asked to be the bishop of our ward at age 28. My wife, Kathy, actually went into labor during the meeting that I was being installed in and missed the whole ceremony.
Terryl Given: And you missed hers!
Elder Jensen: Yes. Luckily, it turned out to be false, and she went back a week later and I was there.
Later I became the president of the first stake in that little valley, the Huntsville Utah Stake, at age 36. Then I served about nine years, then three years as a regional representative, an office now defunct in the Church. Then at 46, in the spring of 1989, I was asked to be a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and served there for about 24.5 years.
I enjoyed some wonderful assignments. I think the two I enjoyed most — or the three, maybe — include being a mission president for a 2-year period in Rochester, NY; being in the area presidency and eventually area president in the Central European Area; and then serving for the last eight years of my service as the Church Historian and Recorder.
So that’s a brief overview. I’ve done some civic things along the way; I’ve been on a school board and I’m doing some things now with intergenerational poverty that I enjoy. Mainly at this stage — I just turned 75 — I’m trying to be a good husband, a good father, and a good grandpa. That’s where I am in life.
Terryl Given: Good. We want to come back — we’re probably going to talk a good bit about your service as Church Historian — but I want to talk a little bit more about your own spiritual upbringing.
The poet William Wordsworth wrote a poem about his own life in which he said, “There are, in our existence, spots of time,” and he went on to say that these moments of time in our past are transformative, shaping moments that determine who we become spiritually and intellectually.
Can you think of two or three such moments in your life that shaped your future?
Elder Jensen: That’s a searching question, Terryl.
You know, I think the first would have been the fact that two years before I was born, my mother gave birth to my older brother, Gary, who is now 77 years old and who, because of oxygen deprivation at birth, has only attained the mental age of about a 5 or 6-year-old.
He and I were raised sort of in tandem. After my birth, there was a hiatus of about 10 years before my parents ventured to have another child, which may say something about me, but it was significant being raised with that special brother at a time when there was very little provision in the Church, in public education, and society generally for what we now call special needs children. Observing his treatment at the hands of other young people trying to come to his aid; watching my parents devote their life, their resources to his enlargement as a person — I think at a very young age, that became one of the most defining parts of my development.
I’ve always been a softy when it comes to those who are different and I think it began with my brother — and it remains. We share, within our family, giving him care now that my parents are gone. I’ve been blessed, I think, to have just a little look into the eternities about the person he will one day be. It makes me very grateful that I’ve been nice to him. I’m always desirous of being that way throughout his life because I think he was given to us that we might learn things that we would have otherwise never learned.
Terryl Given: This is beautiful. Your path to discipleship didn’t begin with an idea; it didn’t begin with a doctrine; it didn’t begin with a message you heard — it began with a human gesture of love and nurturing for a disadvantaged individual.
Elder Jensen: Yes. I know doctrine is a powerful force; I know it can change behavior, but I think having your heartstrings pulled on — at any age, but especially at a young age — by something as sympathetic as I’ve described is a very change-producing moment in time.
Terryl Given: Were there others that followed that?
Elder Jensen: You know, I think being raised in a small community is one. I went through the first nine years of school with the same 33 students.
Terryl Given: Still friends at the end of it?
Elder Jensen: Yes. In fact, we had a class reunion not long ago — our 55th or whatever it was from a junior high graduation — and of the 33, there are about six or seven that have passed away, but all but two of the rest of them came, which kind of showed the unity and closeness that we had.
Growing up in a rural community with that small group of young people and then suddenly at the time of high school, being exposed to a high school of 2000 students, there was something about it. It’s difficult to describe and I don’t want to be the least bit self-laudatory, but I came out of that very what we would call today “backward” upbringing. (In junior high, we had the same three teachers all three years, for instance.)
I didn’t bring any exceptional abilities. I wasn’t a great athlete; I was average. I did have some musical talent — I actually studied the cornet for 12 years, but I didn’t particularly enjoy that because everyone was cheering for the athletes, not the musicians. Intellectually, I felt like I was above-average and motivated to learn. I’d had a father who didn’t go to college — and mother as well — but they always provided good books and my dad was a very progressive farmer. He subscribed to all the journals. So I was motivated, I think, in that way to learn.
Being exposed then in high school, and eventually on my mission to Germany, and then coming back to a university setting — that whole transition was very formative, I think, in the person that I became because I always held people like you in high esteem, but I never thought, for instance, that I would be associating with them or be a part of anything that they would be doing. I felt much smaller in my expectations for my life.
That sense was not of worthlessness, but of being tentative, yet hopeful. Then growing through those years and finding that with effort — and I found that work was a great equalizer — I could compete with and operate in the same spheres that really talented, gifted people were operating in. That has been a very rewarding and formative part of my life. I haven’t expressed it very well, but that’s certainly one of those moments, stretched over several years, that has made me into whatever I am.
Terryl Given: These two experiences that you relate remind me of one of the great poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s a poem about the Christ and it ends with these words: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
It strikes me that these two formative experiences both involve community; they involve your peers and your family.
Have you, early in life or in years succeeding, been driven to a point where you needed or sought out a more personal experience of the divine?
Elder Jensen: Definitely. For me, I think it began as I thought seriously about serving a mission. I was raised in a little Mormon village — my father had been the bishop; my grandfather had been the bishop. It was expected that I would be a good Mormon boy, and generally speaking, I was. Some of those people I went to school with for nine years can relate some experiences that would bear on that, but I always had for some reason, Terryl, the desire to be — I don’t know how to describe it — just honest, solid, true as a person; I’ve always been bothered by hypocrisy and pretension.
So when it came time to seriously consider my mission, I wanted to be able to represent to the people that I knew I would be going to that I had a conviction of what I was teaching. That’s where I think I first began to grapple with my relationship with God. I tried the traditional approaches: to read, to ponder, and to make my prayers as sincere as they could be, but I didn’t receive any major confirmation.
I’d had some spiritual impressions. I remember at age 12, maybe for the first time, in the Pearl of Great Price, and feeling a wave or a wash of spirit come over me. I can think of two or three other times; some of them associated with the formal Church and some of them just in my own life — usually in nature. We farmed and I was out-of-doors a great deal. I loved animals and often in that communion, I sensed the divine.
But when I didn’t receive the kind of rock-solid confirmation that I was seeking, I nevertheless went on my mission. Maybe that wasn’t an honest thing to do, but I think it was the hopeful thing to do. It was there in those early months when I couldn’t speak German and was coming to grips with the law of the fast for the first time, which is something that had been really difficult to keep on the farm. My brother and I used to hide graham crackers in the toolbox of the tractor and bananas in the medicine cabinet of the dairy barn, and it was in that way that we kept ourselves alive during our teenage years.
On my mission, I had a devoted companion and we began to fast one day (and sometimes two days) at a time. There came a time when we had made enough of a fuss in a neighborhood in Frankfurt, Germany that the local Lutheran pastor called a meeting to warn against the Mormon missionaries that were proselytizing. I related this, actually, in the PBS special, but I’ll just briefly touch on it again because it is fundamental to my encounter with the divine.
A night came when the meeting was held — and my German at the time was very rudimentary, so I’m repeating what I learned second-hand through my companion — but apparently the pastor said that we were working in the neighborhood and that we were good young men, but that they had Luther, they had the Bible, and that they had no need for Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon; so be nice to them, but be dismissive.
Then he asked if there was anyone who wanted to comment and my companion raised his hand — we were way at the back of the church — and he was permitted to come forward, and he brought me. Again, by his account, he told them that we appreciated Luther and we believed deeply in the Bible, but that there was more. He bore his testimony about the Restoration and then he invited me to do the same.
I can remember that moment with great clarity because I remember not really having enough German at my command to say much that would have been intelligible or impressive, but I remember being helped and putting together the first, I think, honest-to-goodness testimony of my life.
I can remember venturing into that unknown — stepping just into an area where I began to say, “I know” — having those comments, as I said them, confirmed in my heart in a very noticeable, tangible, spiritual way, which I’ve always been grateful for because from that moment on, I’ve never seriously doubted the essential truth claims of the Church. I’ve been willing, as has my wife, to stake our lives — the course of our lives, the decisions that we’ve made — on those truths and on that impression, then subsequent impressions that have added to that.
That’s where it really began for me, probably at somewhat of a late stage — 19 years of age — but in a very tangible, spiritually memorable moment.
Terryl Given: Many people in the Church began with spiritual foundations; they had conversion experiences, episodes of contact with some revelatory source, and yet find themselves being disaffected and falling away. Increasingly, history becomes a source of contention and disaffection.
I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between history and faith; history and testimony. I’m going to provide a kind of defense in part of wedding the two, but then I want you to push back a little and critique this.
I’ve often wondered “Why?” How did we get to the point that Joseph Smith becomes a centerpiece of our faith? Lutherans don’t have to believe in Luther or his story, right? Calvinists don’t have to believe in John Calvin. You don’t have to believe in Wesley’s conversion experience. But it strikes me that it goes back to that moment in Joseph’s own narrative when he says, “I realized that I could not settle the question by an appeal to the Bible.” I’ve read that a hundred times, but it was only when I read it fairly recently that I realized what that sentence represents is a repudiation of the whole Protestant project because all of Protestantism is founded on the notion of sola scriptura: all we need are the scriptures.
That was the moment when Joseph said, “No — look around. Obviously scriptures can’t resolve this problem.” So that’s the moment at which one has to find an alternative source of authority, and that source of authority becomes Joseph’s revelatory experiences through which he receives priesthood and keys. So as I see it, that would be one way of defending the proposition that, as Richard Bushman has said, “For Mormons, our history is our theology.”
On the other hand, as your own experiences so beautifully illustrate and as the Book of Mormon teaches, any sure foundation has to be built on Christ; it has to be built on an experience of the divine, not on a series of historical propositions.
Elder Jensen: That’s true.
Terryl Given: So where do we find the proper balance? What role should our history have in our spiritual formation and underpinnings to our testimonies?
Elder Jensen: I’m not sure that I see a need to — I guess it’s really what Richard Bushman said — divide our history from our theology. I think in a sense, they are one and the same.
Let me explain it this way: a year ago in our stake conference, a young, bright mother stood and talked about having done her daily scripture read, after which she was sitting quietly thinking about what she had read and then began to reflect on the entire restoration and Joseph Smith. Then there came into her mind the question, “What if all of this isn’t real? What if it isn’t real?” Then she progressed from there to thought about our Savior and the Fall and all of these beliefs that we have as Latter-day Saints, and began again to question.
Up until that point, she’d had a life much like most Latter-day Saints: a series of progressive experiences confirming what she believed, then had the lived experience of “By this you can tell if it’s God’s doctrine or if I speak of myself.” That’s the experiential part of this: “Any man who will do the will of the Father, he shall know of the doctrine: whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself.”
She, at that point, got into what I would call a spiritual free fall, which I think is happening to many good Latter-day Saints today. I think the way I reason through that in my humble way gets to what you’re talking about, and that is that ultimately it all centers on Christ. What we sincerely in our hearts think about Him, believe about Him, hope about Him, is going to determine the kind of person that we’ll be, I think, and what our actions are going to be.
So when I look at this world, and I ask the question, “Where is Christ? Who has Him? Who is living like Him? Who is being taught His teachings? Where is it facilitated to do what He did?,” I’m led to our Church. That’s where I come: to this Church.
That fact, however it got there, to me, is that if someone looks at the New Testament and is trying to find the Christianity that was practiced there, taught there, and written about there in the book of Acts, he will eventually in a thoughtful way come to Mormonism. He will embrace the Christ of the Restoration and with that, takes those historical facts that brought that all to pass. That’s where I come out in my thinking on this.
Terryl Given: You mentioned the phrase, “the Christ of the Restoration.” I love that phrase; it’s not one that I hear a lot. I remember when I was writing on the subject of atonement, I wanted to know, “What did Joseph actually say about atonement?” I can’t find that he ever used the term; he never gave a sermon on the Atonement.
I began to wonder, “Well, is there a different Mormon Christ? Is there a Christ of the Restoration that is significantly different than the ones depicted in the creeds?” The more I’ve studied the question, the more I’m convinced that there absolutely is. Absolutely.
As one example, I love the verse in the Book of Mormon that says that Christ “doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world”; this centering of human welfare as the focus of God and Christ’s divine activity from the very beginning, from eons before the Earth was formed. It seems to me a pretty significant way of establishing the foundations of a theology rather than introducing Christ at that moment when there’s been a catastrophic failure in a plan and suddenly we need a rescuer.
I get the sense that too often we’ve inherited traditions of the fathers and we buy into theological ideas and presuppositions that aren’t ours; that we need to do more to clear the ground to see exactly how different the Christ was that Joseph was reintroducing.
Elder Jensen: I totally agree. The Savior says, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” I think we’re very good sometimes as Latter-day Saints at learning about God and learning about Christ, but there’s a knowledge, an understanding that I think comes from what might be called “acquaintance.”
I know in trying to rear our family, we were very heavy on agency. We wanted them to understand that only when you choose to do good of your own free will are you going to obtain the reward. The reward is, in my opinion, spiritual growth, maturation, the internalization of the gospel as your own. The articles of faith change from being “We believe,” to “I believe.” I think that’s brought about by consciously choosing to live in certain ways.
All of that motivated and focused on Christ and through acts of service, compassion, prayer, fasting, scriptural study and reflection — I think all of those things help us to come to know God and Christ, not about them. We can write about them, talk about them, and debate about them — and heaven only knows, the world does that a lot — but to have an experience with them, to have an awareness that God is aware of me, to feel that He has heard my cries, that I’m forgiven of a sin; those experiences are priceless and I think they’re at the heart of the restored gospel and the Christ and the God of the restoration. I think they’re that personal.
Terryl Given: Why are we not more successful as a people in rooting testimony in that kind of encounter with Christ? Because if you listen to the language of testimonies, people don’t stand up and say, “I was converted when I met Christ on the way to Damascus.”
Elder Jensen: It’s true.
Terryl Given: No. “I was converted when I prayed about the Book of Mormon,” or “I was converted when I prayed about Joseph Smith.” Do we need to recalibrate how we are forming spiritual integrity in the Church?
Elder Jensen: Yeah; I think there may be a recalibration under way. I mean, it’s like you point out — Joseph said very little, if anything, about the Atonement. Very little, if anything, was said about it in my youth. I don’t think I ever had a lesson on it; I don’t think I was aware of it as a doctrine, even, to speak of. It was maybe in the 1980s that we began to talk about it and write about these things in the Church.
I think — how can I say this? — that there is a need (and I think it’s a justified need based on the Church’s doctrine) to somehow encourage greater spirituality, maybe even overt spirituality. I think there can be a hesitancy to do that in the Church. I think sometimes, as you know, early in the history of the Church, there was a spiritualism movement that got away with some people and got away from the Church in a way.
I think often about the word “temperance.” We don’t use it much anymore, but it’s in the fourth section of the D & C; it’s one of the attributes we’re to have. It doesn’t just refer to an anti-alcohol campaign; it refers, I think, to the spiritual balance that we need. The eighth section says, “I will tell you in your heart and in your mind.” I think we have these centers of reason and of feeling, and I think both need to be appealed to to have what could maybe be called “a complete” conviction of the gospel. We’ve probably done a better job appealing to the mind in some ways than we have to the heart.
Terryl Given: It’s a cerebral religion.
Elder Jensen: That’s true. It is a cerebral religion.
Terryl Given: This is one thing that Oxford University Press learned: “Mormons read books!” That’s one reason why there’s such a burgeoning of lines of Mormon studies and the presses. This is what one of the senior editors at Oxford told me: she said, “We discovered that Mormons devour their history.”
Elder Jensen: So let me ask you a personal question. I’m reluctant to use the word “mystical” because that has its own connotations, but sometimes I think that we almost need a little more mysticism; more of an encounter with the divine. We use and overuse the word “awesome” so that everything is “awesome,” but in its original use, that’s a feeling — a feeling of awe — that we should have. It isn’t a feeling that pushes God away, I don’t think. It brings us closer because we are in awe: we’re in awe of His love, His power, and His interest in us, and to experience and feel that more often than we do and to have some mechanism to create that — I’d love your thoughts on that; what it is you’ve read.
Terryl Given: Two ideas have really, really shaped my spiritual practice, I guess I would say. One is Section 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants, beginning with about verse 52 where the Lord — and this is given in 1829, of course — speaks to Joseph Smith about His church. He’s referring to a church already in existence, so we have to ask “What Church is this?,” because he’s talking about the Restoration. He’s saying, “I’m not doing this to do away with my church and I don’t want my church to be panicked by what’s about to happen.” That’s the moment at which you become aware that Joseph really understood this idea of an invisible church that transcends any particular denominational category.
It’s my understanding based on that, based on the Lord’s reference to “holy men ye know not of” that he recognized that. The Doctrine and Covenants’ own description of the Church is “those who will repent and have Him to be their God.” I believe that we should and can — and I have — felt a part of this larger spiritual community.
That’s not to downplay the unique significance of the Restoration as the repository of saving keys and ordinances. The way I would put it is that I think Joseph Smith was suggesting that the Church (the institutional Church) is the portal of salvation. It’s not the reservoir of the righteous.
That’s helped me to open myself to being taught by some of the masters of the spiritual tradition and of the Julian of Norwich and the Edward Beecehers and the Gregory of Nazianzus. They’re sprinkled throughout history; these beautiful, beautiful souls who have so much to teach us about the consecrated life.
Elder Jensen: That’s true. I remember reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain just shortly after I got back from my mission and being so impressed with his drive as a person to find God and to experience God. It is very motivating. It doesn’t all come from within the Church, for sure.
Terryl Given: It doesn’t. I remember reading an oration of Gregory of Nazianzus and in the course of his testifying of Christ, he apologizes for being overcome by emotion at contemplating the suffering of the Christ.
I think, “How can we doubt the devotion and goodness of such figures from the past?” So I appreciate the institutional forms and structures for how they help us to raise families and give us additional scriptures and provide all these resources.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with a member of the Church in Stockholm who was struggling with his faith. While we were there — he was hosting us — he was trying to make the decision whether to stay or whether to leave. He had a whole list of grievances and complaints. I remember thinking, “You know, it’s not going to really do to just engage these one by one by one.” Finally I thought to just ask him this question: I said, “Do you believe that in the Restoration, as you experienced it, you have all of the spiritual resources necessary to secure salvation for you and your family?” He said, “Well, yes.” I said, “Well then what’s the problem?”
I think that’s a question that we need to ask ourselves more often. It’s like my son says: “The Church isn’t a Swiss Army knife.” It’s not supposed to have an aspect that fulfills every need in our lives, but it gives us those resources, the indispensable instruments to secure our reunion with the Father and the human society.
That’s helped me to put history into a perspective which I think is a healthier perspective.
Elder Jensen: Very healthy.
Terryl Given: But you were Church Historian during an utterly transformative moment. When the history of the Church is told 100 years from now, it will be these years. They’ll say, “Church history came of age.” There was a good start under the Arrington years, but then that was kind of aborted and then reinitiated.
There’s a couple of things I’d like to know. First, did you experience it as a historic moment? Were you aware that the ground was shaking underneath you? And a second question: I’d like to know if there was more to it than an inevitable response to mass media and the internet?
Elder Jensen: Those are really profound questions.
I think I was aware that we were in the midst of something very, very unusual; very transformative. I certainly had a headache every day, if that’s any indication of the stresses and strains of a period of time like that. I think yes, in some respects what happened might have been inevitable just because there was that convergence of digital technology and everybody being networked through the World Wide Web; someone being smart enough to figure out what a web crawler could do and the connectivity that came about in the entire world — and this is before the day of the smart phone, which is an era of its own.
I have a hard time viewing myself as being very instrumental in all of this — in some ways, I was a happy victim of circumstance. In some ways, I was very blessed to have as associates men and women who were very visionary.
When I first became the Church historian, people within the Church History Department kept asking me, “What’s your vision for our department?” I remember saying, “I don’t have a vision! You’re going to help me create one.” If I had a vision, I guess, it was that I had a feeling that within our archives, within our library, were some of the most precious — as I called them “the jewels of the kingdom” — truths, stories, and evidences of the truthfulness of the Church.
Terryl Given: So you didn’t see it as a repository of hidden smoking guns?
Elder Jensen: Not at all.
Terryl Given: You’re saying it was the contrary?
Elder Jensen: Very much the contrary. Again, it’s just the nature I’ve acquired of openness, (sometimes maybe to a fault) but I could never see any benefit — especially in the digital age, in the information age, or really in any age — to covering up. Truth is a knowledge of things as they were and as they are and as they are to come, and the Holy Ghost testifies of truth. He speaks of things as they really are and as they really will be. I believe that. I believe the best antidote we have for anyone’s faith crisis is to tell the whole story and lay it out the way it happened or the way we think it happened to the best of our knowledge.
Nothing happens in this Church that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve don’t approve of and, in a sense, lead. I was happily ensconced in the third tier of a three-tiered hierarchy. I felt very comfortable there. There was very little that we did during those years that we didn’t advocate up-line and receive approval for with complete knowledge. That’s actually a feeling of great security for a person who was in my circumstance.
Not to criticize Leonard Arrington at all, because he’s unsurpassed in so many ways, but I don’t think he quite understood, having come from an academic background and not having served an apprenticeship within the hierarchy of the Church, which I was blessed to serve in. I don’t think he appreciated the — I’ll call it “correlated” — environment that we were in there; just the necessary basis to touch and the steps to take to make that all work.
Once that all got started and trust was established and we began to see the fruits of a policy of openness and complete transparency, I think it just carried itself along on its own power — and it continues. Just the other day the new Comprehensive History of the Church was announced. That was really the only idea that I went into my office with: that we needed to upgrade — or update, rather — what B. H. Roberts had done. To see that bear fruit now is a really happy day for me and I think it will be for the entire Church.
Terryl Given: Can you think of any moments of surprise in your experience there at the Historian’s Department?
Elder Jensen: I guess I would say that I had several moments of surprise. I was surprised, for instance, when we went to the First Presidency and asked for the release of the Andrew Jensen affidavits concerning the Mountain Meadow’s Massacre. Those had never been released. It was at the time when a book was being written by Church employees about the Mountain Meadow’s Massacre. I felt like if we were going to write that somewhat under Church auspices — at least funded by the Church even though the authors had complete autonomy — we needed to release everything we had on the Mountain Meadow’s Massacre.
When we went and requested those affidavits be released, President Hinckley was the only member of the Presidency who had read them, and he asked President Monson and President Faust if they had read them. They hadn’t, but they quickly did, and then they quickly gave permission on the basis that if we were going to tell that story, we needed to tell it with all that we had.
That was a little bit of a surprise and yet it sort of set the tone. Just recently the minutes of the Council of Fifty were published. Those again were sort of sacrosanct documents that no one ever got to, and now they’re out for the whole public to read — and probably very few have read them!
Terryl Given: I remember as a member of the advisory board, I was asked to review the Council of Fifty and I was pretty excited the day that that parcel came in the mail. “I’m going to be one of the first!” It was a pretty boring set of minutes.
Elder Jensen: That’s true.
Terryl Given: There wasn’t any body buried —
Elder Jensen: Nope. No big discoveries there.
Terryl Given: — which leads to my next question. We commonly acknowledge — it’s been alleged and it seems to be commonly acknowledged — that the narrative of Church history that has unfolded over recent years is a different narrative than we learned in Primary and in Sunday School.
Do you think that’s overstated or do you think that’s the case? Is it a significantly different narrative that we tell now or that will be told in this new Church history?
Elder Jensen: I think it’s maybe a little overstated right now. Certainly there are certain facets of our history that haven’t been completely told in the past, polygamy being a prominent one; but I don’t think there was ever a wholesale attempt to spin our history. Yes, in those early years we were in a more defensive mode; a more apologetic mode. Even in my own family, my youngest daughter one time said to me, “Dad, why didn’t you talk more about polygamy?” The honest answer was, “Because your mother wouldn’t have appreciated that.”
I think we chose to emphasize the strengths — what we felt were the more relevant parts — of our history and our doctrine, to the neglect of some things that have come home to bite us a little bit because it appears now to some that they were covered over and that there was some deliberate attempt made to portray the Church’s history as different than it was.
I don’t believe in that theory.
Terryl Given: As you said, the First Presidency themselves, in most cases, weren’t familiar with these original documents —
Elder Jensen: That’s true.
Terryl Given: — that fill in details we’re missing; missing gaps.
Yeah, I think I agree with you. I can understand other people’s feelings though and I think it’s not really excusable that we have so elided the history of polygamy from Joseph Smith’s experience in the Church history.
Other things, I still don’t quite get why they matter — like I’ve heard of people who have actually left the Church when they discovered that Joseph used a peep stone in a hat. Somehow I’m trying to understand why it’s more credible or respectable to imagine Joseph wearing a Nephite breastplate with a long arm through giant spectacles — but looking at a seer stone in a hat is somehow a degradation of that idea or something.
I think some things matter a lot more than others.
Elder Jensen: I agree. Some of those things are very difficult for me to understand as well. I suppose there is a difference in everyone as far as their capacity to believe; to just be accepting of some things. I’ve always been grateful that I have a believing heart. My wife, actually, is much more questioning and much more curious in some ways than I am. I’ve just never had that need. I’ve enjoyed learning, but I’ve always been very accepting of the truths as they were presented.
Terryl Given: Nothing has ever pushed you to the precipice of doubt?
Elder Jensen: Not really. I suppose following my mission when I went to BYU and began to become more intellectually aware — took some philosophy classes — my mind wandered and I worked out different scenarios and “what ifs,” but no, I’ve never come close.
I’ve been thinking about that and it comes back to the little mother who asked, “What if all of this isn’t real?” Joseph said “Never had any scripture come with such force into the heart of man as that verse did to mine at that time,” and I’ve gone through a succession of important scriptures for me, but currently the most important scripture for me is the little rhetorical question that Alma asks in Alma 32 when he’s pointing out to us how faith increases and how, as he likened it to a seed, we begin to feeling swelling motions; we begin to have these spiritual impressions and experiences.
Then, sort of in mid-sentence, he says, “Is not this real?” As I think about the Restoration and as I think about Jesus as my Savior, I just have this assurity: this is real. This is real. If Sterling McMurrin wants to say that angels just don’t bring gold plates to young boys, I want to say to him, “Yes, they do.”
This is real. This is how it happened. Again, those verses from Jacob where he talks about the Spirit speaking of things as they really are — I’ve often wondered, “Why would he modify with that word ‘really’? Things either are or they are not. How can they really be?”
Well, they can really be, I think, when the Spirit witnesses to us of their reality. There’s nothing more real than that. When people get in this spiritual free fall through their doubts and their questions, I just want to say to them, “Hang on. There will be places you can grab. Hang on,” because these things are real. I feel it, I think, most keenly at funerals and I feel it in the temple, which is where I would say most of my mystical experiences occur as insights come to me.
I had one come just the other day that I shared in the temple with my wife that was priceless to me. So that’s, at least for me at the present moment, something that provides a real firm foundation for my faith.
Terryl Given: Thank you. I’d like to wrap up with three questions and you can answer them as briefly or as at great length as you choose.
What do Mormons do really well?
Elder Jensen: Mormons or the Mormon Church?
Terryl Given: Choose either one.
Elder Jensen: Well, I think it’s both. I think we center really well on the Savior in our teachings and in our practices. I think there are millions of good Latter-day Saints who really are seeking to come unto Christ and to learn of Him and to do His works. I feel it on a micro-scale in my little country ward almost every week. I feel that happening in lives. I think that’s something we do really well.
I think, as an offshoot of that, we do humanitarian things very well. I think there’s a service ethic that we hopefully, because of our belief in Christ and our desire to “do unto the least of these my brethren,” that we do that well. We do it institutionally, but I think just individually as well. This “Just Serve” program that the Church has inaugurated — it’s amazing the opportunities that are published and then the people who act of their own free will every week in just going out and doing good in the community somewhere unattached to the Church at all.
I think we do that very well.
Terryl Given: And what don’t we do so well — yet?
Elder Jensen: This goes back to my youth. I don’t think we do well by those that don’t fit our norms. The young man who doesn’t serve a mission or who comes home early; the person struggling with same-gender attraction; the divorced woman — those who are different. I think if you meet the norm, if you’re striving for the ideal, and you’re coming close to it, I think Mormonism is a glorious place to be. If you’re not — if you’re in some in-between state where you don’t quite fit — I don’t think we’ve learned yet quite how to bring that person in.
Terryl Given: Is that an institutional or a personal feeling?
Elder Jensen: I think it’s both. I really do think it’s both.
I think we have some racism in our ranks. I think it’s still difficult for some people to embrace all races. I think the solutions have got to, in part, be created by the Church, but I think they’ve also got to be a part of each of our hearts as we figure out ways to love, include, and make everyone feel welcomed and loved within our tent — and I don’t know that we’re doing that very well yet.
Terryl Given: Last question: describe your holy envy of some other faith traditions — practice, idea, teaching.
Elder Jensen: Holy envy. What a great term.
Terryl Given: That was Krister Stendahl, who was former dean at Harvard Divinity School, who used that expression.
Elder Jensen: Interesting.
Just out of my own experience, I guess I would have to say that in a way, I have always envied the group of Trappist monks who inhabit the monastery in the little valley where I live. They take vows of celibacy, silence, and poverty, and their order is a contemplative order: they’re not trying to serve mankind; they’re trying to pray for mankind and out of that strength of prayer, to help the world.
As I’ve come through the years to associate with and observe them in their strict observance of their vows, I have seen a holiness. They eat very healthily; they work very rigorously. There’s a love and unity among them; they have a common purpose that they’ve enjoyed commercially and otherwise to make their monetary go.
The end result has always been a clarity of eye, a radiance of countenance, and just a deep humility for life, for other people, and for God’s blessings, that I’ve envied. I’ve wondered in my life whether I’ve come as far in my spiritual development. I realize that they’ve missed many of the great experiences that can produce a more sterling character, such as marriage and family life, but I do envy the degree of their purity and their holiness, in a sense, as men; however that came about in that order.
Terryl Given: Elder Jensen, thank you for your words and your life, and for gifting us with your time today.
Elder Jensen: Terryl, thank you for giving me this chance. I’ve long admired you and read almost everything you’ve written, and I feel very honored to be a part of this effort. Thank you.
Terryl Given: Thank you.