PROVO — Brigham Young University faculty and staff should maintain laserlike focus on “our responsibility to help build faith in Jesus Christ and in his restored church,” Elder Quentin L. Cook told them during the school’s annual University Conference on Monday, one week before fall classes begin.

One way faculty and staff can help students build faith in an age of divisiveness and rising secularism is to help create racial unity, said the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU.

Elder Cook said faculty also can model Christlike responses to criticism of the church and its leaders, specifically addressing the contributions of the school’s namesake, Brigham Young, and share accurate historical and doctrinal information and defend religious liberty.

“My challenge to you today is that individually and as a university, you will need to tack against the prevailing winds of disbelief and division,” Elder Cook said. “You will know best in your own fields and your own spheres how to apply this counsel and stand as a beacon of belief and unity in a world that often devalues both.”

He said BYU needs to lift everybody’s vision and specifically challenged the faculty to lift and bless a growing student body. BYU President Kevin Worthen said the university plans to expand enrollment by 3,000 students over the next six years without increasing costs or adding buildings.

“I pray,” said Elder Cook, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, “that you will light spiritual beacon-fires that burn brightly in the lives of the students, and that you will sound doctrinal trumpet calls that will echo in their hearts and minds throughout their lives.”

Racial unity

“One area that can help us to build faith is to be particularly sensitive in creating unity and being grateful for diversity,” Elder Cook said. “We are in a particularly heated period when deep and personal wrongs have been highlighted among our Black brothers and sisters. We each need to be at the forefront of righteously repenting and following the counsel of President Russell M. Nelson, who asked us ‘to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation.’”

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He pointed to the church president’s example in releasing a joint statement with the NAACP after George Floyd’s death calling on people “to demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect.” He also recommended the speech given by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, at the 2018 “Be One” celebration.

“We all support peaceful efforts to overcome racial and social injustice,” Elder Cook said. “This needs to be accomplished.”

He said Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero to him and his classmates at Stanford Law School and how impressed he was by the number of leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s who “were motivated by their devotion to Christianity,” but he noted that some people involved in the current movement “are deeply opposed to religion and people of faith.”

“This does not diminish the religious and secular reasons for equal treatment of all of God’s children which resonates with me to the depths of my soul,” he said. “However, I am concerned when much of the discussion is an attack on faith and belief, often reframing and distorting our history. Some, intentionally or not, are trying to undermine our country’s founding history and the United States Constitution. Whether by intention or by myopia, both effects are regrettable.”

Responding to criticism

Elder Cook drew from British literature to characterize critics and defenders of faith. He said one challenge to faith in the church today is unfair criticism. 

“We live in a day when people are dismissive, highly critical or disparaging of prior leaders whether in government, academia or religious leaders, including our own,” he said, with the criticism often calculated to be as divisive as possible.

“When criticism is directed at the church and/or BYU, it is always difficult to know how or when to respond, or whether to respond at all,” he said, adding, “We are certainly among the least aggressive in defending ourselves against obviously untrue and/or unfair criticism.”

For example, Elder Cook said a leader of another faith told him no other religion would have withheld “a hailstorm of righteous indignation at the crude, vicious and reprehensible portrayal of our faith and our missionaries” in “The Book of Mormon” musical.

Instead, the church bought ads in the official musical playbill that said, “You’ve seen the play … Now read the book” with a picture of the Book of Mormon.

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“Usually, direct response or litigation is not needed,” Elder Cook said. “But sometimes, it is required. Just because the church or BYU administrators do not respond, never assume that the criticism is justified. As I have indicated many criticisms are not worthy of a response. And in many cases, the Christian thing to do is not respond and to turn the other cheek.”

The underlying principle is protecting and building faith, he said. He encouraged BYU faculty to “correct falsehood and matters taken out of context in a loving and kind way. There will be some occasions when we need to speak publicly to protect faith. In your interactions with young people, it is usually better to correct privately. To those who feel marginalized, wrap your arms around them figuratively and help them feel loved and appreciated.”

Criticism in historical context

Elder Cook spoke of Brigham Young, the “American Moses” who led the Latter-day Saints for more than three decades.

“He was a practical and organizational genius who led the Saints’ great trek West and the gathering of tens of thousands to the American West,” Elder Cook said. “But more than that, he was a deeply spiritual leader who testified boldly of the life and mission of Jesus Christ, who cared deeply about the spiritual and physical welfare of Latter-day Saints and who sent missionaries throughout the world.”

Brigham Young |

Criticism of past church leaders like President Young should be contextualized, he said. For example, “Brigham Young also said things about race that fall short of our standards today. Some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time.”

In June, vandals wrote the word “racist” in red paint on the statue of Brigham Young on BYU’s campus. Some students are pursuing petitions to change the names of campus buildings, citing statements or actions of past leaders.

Elder Cook said, “During this period, Brigham also taught, with respect to race, ‘Of one blood has God made all flesh. We don’t care about the color.’”

Additionally, President Young was in the balance, in the words of one historian Elder Cook quoted, “a man who stood out among the men and women of his time by his good words and acts toward Native Americans.”

Elder Cook quoted Matt Grow, the managing director of the Church History Department, which is overseeing the publication of “Saints,” a new official history of the church. Grow has cautioned against becoming ugly tourists when they visit the past by taking history out of context; people should try to understand historical figures in their own context and culture.

“In recent years,” Elder Cook said, “the church has done much to help people understand potentially difficult topics in the context of the big picture. These efforts include: ‘Saints,’ ‘The Joseph Smith Papers’ and the Gospel Topics essays.”

Elder Cook said his mission president in England, Elder Marion D. Hanks, a general authority of the church, adamantly taught that the Book of Mormon verse that describes a skin of blackness associated with being cut off from the Lord’s presence relates solely to a group of ancient people in that book of scripture.

Elder Hanks taught his missionaries that the lasting doctrine was elsewhere in the book: “...and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”

“That was our doctrine then,” Elder Cook said, “and that is our doctrine now. President Hanks made it clear that if anyone had feelings of racial superiority, they needed to repent.”

Elder Quentin L. Cook attends Boys’ Nation in Washington, D.C., in 1956, when he said he saw an example of racial disharmony. |

He said that he has spent the past 45 years in stake presidencies in San Francisco or as a general authority of the church.

“In all that period covering 45 years, I have never heard a racially derogatory comment from a single leader of the church,” Elder Cook said. “What I have heard is love, kindness and respect for peoples of all races and all cultures. That was true in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it is true at church headquarters.”

Monday represented the third time in four years that an apostle has spoken at the general session of BYU’s annual University Conference, which is used to set the school’s direction and to honor outstanding employees. Elder Cook’s talk was prerecorded in the Church Office Building auditorium.

Each apostle has been clear about the role of faith in Jesus Christ in the university’s mission. Elder Dale G. Renlund addressed the conference in 2019 about creating and conveying a Christlike culture. Elder David A. Bednar spoke in 2017 about walking in the meekness of Christ’s spirit.

Elder Cook noted that COVID-19 “is the elephant in the living room,” and Worthen spent much of his talk on it while delivering his remarks via livestream from the Marriott Center on campus. The university president said the school is well-prepared to start a pandemic-affected fall semester by offering hybrid classes, partially in the classroom and partially online.

BYU President Kevin Worthen speaks to faculty and staff via livestream from the Marriott Center during the 2020 University Conference on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU

But, Worthen said, however prepared, “We will have to adjust. It is possible that we will have to abruptly return to remote delivery, and maybe early in the semester.”

Either way, when the pandemic ends, the university will not fully fall back into its previous pattern as it works to achieve its core five-year goals of ensuring alignment with the university mission, enhancing the educational experience of students and expanding enrollment.

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“I believe that if we fully engage, process and remember the experiences of this present pandemic world, we can bring together the past and the present to make a better future,” Worthen said. “I hope we don’t just survive this unusual experience, but that we lean into it in a way that both reconfirms the essential components of our prior core goals and also accelerates our progress toward them. That is admittedly a very ambitious, audacious — and some would say unrealistic — aspiration. But I believe that we are better positioned than any other university to do this — that we were built for this.”