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Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

Why are the Latter-day Saints a peculiar people?

Originally published in the Improvement Era, Sept. 1942, pp. 577, 607.

John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Council of the Twelve from 1921 until his death in 1952.

John A. Widtsoe

In looks, clothes, language, education, business pursuits, and the ordinary social practices, Latter-day Saints are like other people. When the term peculiar is applied to us, reference is made to our religious beliefs and our practices based upon those beliefs—matters that are wholly of a personal nature, but in which we differ from other Christian creeds and churches.

These differences are vital and cannot be denied. They will make us a peculiar people until the world comes to a unity of faith. We do not flaunt our differences before our friends of other faiths; neither do we try to hide them. We are proud of them, for they are rounded in truth, and truth is our dearest possession. We know, moreover, that if our uniqueness were everywhere followed, peace would descend upon the earth.

The peculiarities of the Latter-day Saints fall under five main heads:

First, the Church claims, without reservation, that it was founded by direct revelation from God. The Father and the Son, through personal appearance to Joseph Smith, initiated the work that led to the organization of the Church. By this appearance, God was shown to be in the form of a man who spoke with his own voice to the young Prophet and instructed him. In an age when most men believe that God is an ethereal essence, bodiless and formless, who long since has ceased to speak to man, this claim of the Church is really its foremost peculiarity. This difference is emphasized in the further claim that heavenly beings, men who had lived on earth, had died, and then had been resurrected, gave Joseph Smith further instruction and guidance in the work he was called to perform. This intimate connection between the seen and the unseen world is in some respects strange to the Christian world and makes of us a peculiar people.

Second, a most formidable difference lies in the claim that the restored Church, patterned precisely after the primitive church of Christ, is the one official instrument through which the Lord works out on earth his plan of salvation for the children of men. The mission of the church of Jesus Christ is to establish the kingdom of God on earth. To do this, the necessary power to perform with authority the ordinances of the kingdom is required. This has been given the Church. The holy priesthood has been bestowed upon it by the ancient worthies who held it when the Church was undefiled. Since apostasy from the primitive Church has occurred, and all other Christian churches lack the authority of the priesthood, all who desire to enter the kingdom of God with full citizenship must come within the confines of the restored church of Jesus Christ. It is the Lord’s authoritative church. Under such conditions the destiny of the Church is secure. The Lord is always victorious; so will his church be. To those of other faiths, these seem daring claims, but only such a faith gives courage and stability to the members of the Church. In the face of such faith, fear of the future vanishes, if we but seek earnestly to carry out the purposes of the Lord.

Third, the body of doctrine or beliefs of the Church is a distinguishing difference. The Church is the custodian of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the fulness of it. A principle of truth here, another there, characterizes the Christian churches. The true Church is not content unless it possesses the complete truth of the gospel. It claims to possess all the principles of the plan of salvation. Therefore, it accepts some principles rejected or ignored by many or all other churches. Note some of these beliefs, foreign to most modern Christian churches: God is the Father of our spirits. We lived with him before we came on earth. Under his divine plan these premortal spirits have been clothed with bodies on earth. He watches over his earthly children; and when occasion arises, he may speak to his children through the Holy Spirit, by messengers, or by his very voice. The Church is guided by the Lord through continual revelation. The God who spoke to his ancient Church has power to speak and does speak to his authorized servants today. Such old doctrines are new to the churches of today. The doctrine of graded salvation, based upon our works; eternal progression in the hereafter; and salvation for the dead by the vicarious service of the living are as an unknown language to the churches of today. That the body is a sacred house of the spirit that must be kept free from all contamination, that the law of cause and effect is operative in the spiritual world, or that the children of men are literally the children of God and that, therefore, mankind forms a real and genuine brotherhood, does not seem to have dawned upon the minds of many of today’s religious thinkers. Yet these and other truths belonging to the gospel of Jesus Christ are really age-old. But since they have been rejected or forgotten, they make us who accept them seem different.

Fourth, even more peculiar to the thoughtless crowds of the day is the Mormon insistence that using truth is just as important as knowing truth—that “faith without works is dead.” Every act of life should be influenced and directed by the laws of the gospel. The purpose of the plan of salvation should be the purpose, directly or indirectly, of every human undertaking. Life within the gospel cannot be placed on one side and our daily tasks made independent of the gospel on the other. The gospel must be lived daily. It must be lived sincerely. Obedience to the Lord’s law—whatever it may be—daily, steadily, always, is the true measure of success. Certainly, many Christians try to obey the Lord’s law, as they understand it. More do not. Hence, drunkenness, immorality, murders, and other acts of darkness characterize an age rich in knowledge. In this day, a church that makes religion a weekday affair is peculiar, indeed.

Fifth, most astonishing of all, the most peculiar thing about the Latter-day Saints—so it seems to our weak generation—is that its members have the courage to live up to their beliefs in the face of adverse practices. The Latter-day Saint rejoices in his larger and more complete knowledge and in the privilege of using this knowledge for his good. In a social gathering he refuses the cocktail with a smile and a “thank you.” Among companions who smoke, he keeps his mouth and lungs clean and sweet. When others make Sunday a boisterous holiday, he spends part of it attending to his church duties. Amid immorality, he keeps himself clean and goes to his wife as pure as he expects her to be, and continues so throughout life. He tries to follow the admonition of the Savior—to be in the world, but not of the world.

The world marvels at such daring, but admires it. Men who love truth above all else, who are guided in their lives by the principles of truth and who dare to conform to them, despite temptation or scoffing companions, are the truly honored ones in the minds of saints and sinners. They are the ones the world is hoping and praying for to lead humanity into peace and happiness. But such courage makes of us a peculiar people.

We should indeed be proud to exchange error for truth, to seek urgently for all truth, and to build truth every day and everywhere into our lives. By that path we shall reach individual and collective happiness and power and become able to serve better our confused and unhappy world. If these be peculiarities, let us thank the Lord for them.

The Latter-day Saints are a peculiar people. So were the former-day Saints. Hear the words of Peter the Apostle: “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9.)

I’m confused about the principle of priesthood leadership in the home. Could you explain how priesthood leadership should operate in the family?

Dennis L. Lythgoe, bishop and author of two books on marriage and leadership. Church leaders have continually encouraged people to regard marriage as an equal partnership. President Spencer W. Kimball said:

“When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 106.)

Barbara Smith, former general president of the Relief Society, draws an interesting parallel between some marriages and some small companies in which one partner owns the controlling stock and thus acts as the chief decision maker. In some cases, the unhappy result has been dissolution of the company.

Sister Smith points out that “too many marriages use this model and do not utilize the strengths of either the husband or the wife. These marriages often end in unhappiness, a disaster for the entire family that was started with happiness and hope.

“I suppose what I would like to see is my son and daughter-in-law as equal partners in their marriage relationship. Both would bring their assets and liabilities, their teachings, testimonies, educational and professional background, their healthy vibrant spirits, good bodies and minds, their evaluative understanding to help them recognize truth so they would ‘reason together’ and make the most of what each has to offer.

“In that way they can learn to function as equal partners, both helping to make decisions with a clear, healthy vision of what each thinks and why, so they can come to a consensus of opinion cooperatively together. … They would then be prepared to fulfill their individual roles and function well together in their joint roles. When he speaks he will know that she will support him and that he can confidently speak for both of them. She will also feel free to express an opinion or make a commitment for both of them because she would know his feelings about their plans; they will be able to work together as one.” (The Love That Never Faileth, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984, p. 109.)

I believe strongly in a marriage of equals, where husband and wife make decisions together, with neither partner dictating to the other.

Yet the family needs someone to preside, and the Lord has designated the father to fulfill that role. As the presiding officer, he may preside at family home evenings or family councils, call on family members to offer prayers or blessings or to present lessons. And if he holds the priesthood, the father may bless his wife and other family members. He may baptize and confirm his children and perform other priesthood ordinances on their behalf.

Having one person designated as the presiding officer suggests order—not superiority. All important deliberations and decisions within the family should involve the husband and the wife equally, both interacting with gentleness and love unfeigned. In cases of disagreement, a couple is wise to wait until they can agree, rather than one pushing ahead with his or her own decision. Even the most pressing problems should be treated carefully, allowing enough time for tempers to cool and prayers to be offered.

Elder Dean L. Larsen of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy wrote about a young couple who were planning a temple marriage. Prior to the wedding the young woman came to Elder Larsen, distraught and tearful. She said that her fiance had outlined what he expected of her, and she found it disturbing. According to his demands, she must understand that he would be the unquestioned authority in their home and that his word would be law.

Elder Larsen wrote, “This young man, who had won the hand and heart of his sweetheart through a loving and gentle courtship, now was constrained to impose a strict dominion upon her. In so doing he was appealing to his misunderstanding of the patriarchal order.” (Ensign, Sept. 1982, p. 8.)

In some cases, such an adverse interpretation of marriage leads to verbal and physical abuse. President David O. McKay said, “I cannot imagine a man’s being cruel to a woman. I cannot imagine her so conducting herself as to merit such treatment. Perhaps there are women in the world who exasperate their husbands, but no man is justified in resorting to physical force or in exploding his feelings in profanity. There are men, undoubtedly, in the world who are thus beastly, but no man who holds the priesthood of God should so debase himself.” (Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: The Improvement Era, 1953, p. 476.)

Doctrine and Covenants 121:36–37 [D&C 121:36–37] explicitly warns against such behavior:

“The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and … the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”

The Lord notes that the temptation to exercise unrighteous dominion is prevalent (D&C 121:39) but that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

“By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (D&C 121:41–42).

Rather than worrying about whose word is “law,” every man who approaches marriage should remember the words of Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, who counseled men:

“If you are guilty of demeaning behavior toward your wife, if you are prone to dictate and exercise authority over her, if you are selfish and brutal in your actions in the home, then stop it! Repent!” (Cornerstones of a Happy Home, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1984, p. 2.)

A man and a woman should each have an equal opportunity to resolve disagreements. It is not right for the man to think that, since he is “the head of the home,” his opinion is the right one. “The head of the home” can be wrong; yet many men endeavor to get what they want by pulling rank. In some cases, the woman is the one who insists that her view should always prevail, and the man, out of deference to her, complies. Insistence on the decision-making right is undesirable for either the man or the woman. The couple should discuss their differences, candidly consider the pros and cons, then make a decision both can live with.

In this connection, a friend of mine prefers the phrase “unity with the priesthood” instead of the more familiar phrase “supporting the priesthood.” She said: “When we think in terms of supporting the priesthood, we conjure up in our minds the image of the priesthood being up there, and we women being down here supporting it. ‘Unity with the priesthood’ conjures up a more equitable image in my mind. I value the priesthood highly. And I think that women and men together need to support each other and to move in a unified way toward the same exalted goals.” (Cynthia Lynch, This People, Nov. 1985, p. 59.)

If this kind of equality in marriage makes so much sense, how do we explain the well-known scripture from the Apostle Paul?

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.

“For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. …

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Eph. 5:22–23, 25.)

As the head of the Church, Jesus was the humble servant of all. He served others constantly, loving them and sacrificing for them. In fact, he suffered all things and gave his life for them. If a husband is a loving servant to his wife, then her “submission” to him is very different from what we imagine in a situation of authoritarian control. A wife would only submit to the kind of righteous leadership exemplified through complete service and sacrifice.

In fact, this is not submission at all, as we understand the term today, but instead an intimate, trusting relationship that has as its base love, reason, discussion, and respect. Such, I believe, is the relationship the Lord has in mind for all husbands and wives.

[photo] Photography by Eldon Linschoten

In visiting a country where there are many beggars, I felt torn between Christ’s teachings to give to the poor and the idea that I might be doing them more a disservice than a service. When is it appropriate to give to beggars?

John F. O’Donnal, president of the Guatemala City Temple, Guatemala. Having lived and traveled for many years in countries where there is a great deal of poverty, I, too, have sometimes pondered the scriptures’ admonishments to give to the poor and the needy. Some beggars truly are needy—poor, sick, or destitute. Others, however, belong to organized groups—some of whom even pay for the exclusive right to beg in certain lucrative locations.

For some of these people, begging is a way of life; they prey upon the susceptibility of tourists or newcomers to an area. If we give to such people, we encourage them to continue in their activity, which in many instances leads to crime and which in no way encourages them to become self-sufficient. In giving to beggars, we may not necessarily be helping them; giving without teaching is destructive. The Lord’s way is to teach them to look after themselves and to help them learn to become self-sufficient.

How, then, do we reconcile the idea of teaching people to be self-sufficient with the Savior’s counsel to give to the poor?

This is an important question—one which will eventually confront us as population increases throughout the world, nations’ economies worsen, and the number of beggars increases. The Old Testament tells us that “the poor shall never cease out of the land.” (Deut. 15:11.)

In the Book of Mormon, we read King Benjamin’s words to his people: “Ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.” (Mosiah 4:16.)

King Benjamin says that we should refrain from judging others who may need our help: “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent. …

“I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.” (Mosiah 4:17–26.)

In this dispensation, the Lord has given instructions that the Saints’ “properties” should “be laid before the bishop of [the] church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint for the relief of the poor.” (See D&C 42:30–31.) Thus, in our own day, fast offerings and the Church welfare program have been established as an institutional way to help members—and, in some circumstances, nonmembers—in times of need, disability, or unemployment. We do indeed “administer to the relief” of the poor through giving generous fast offerings and donating labor to the welfare program. If we love the Lord and wish to follow him, we will also give generously when called upon by our leaders to give more—even at great sacrifice—and we will rejoice in that giving.

The Church does much as an organization to help the needy. But what about the individuals who may approach us? How can we know the difference between the truly needy, the professional beggars, and the frivolous begging that also exists in many places in the world?

Based on the scriptures and on my experiences, I have determined that giving is a personal matter to be decided by each individual as guided by the Spirit. What makes the decision so difficult is that it is impossible for us to help all the needy with whom we are confronted. Most travelers have had the experience of being surrounded by so many beggars that it would be impossible to give even a pittance to each. In such situations, daily prayer for wisdom in all that we do can guide us to know in our hearts by the whisperings of the Spirit when and to whom we might give.

With the Spirit’s promptings, we can be assured that when we do give, we will do so as the Apostle Paul counseled—“Not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7.)