In an excellent discourse given in the October 1971 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Boyd. K Packer of the Twelve Apostles compared the restored gospel to a piano:
The gospel might be likened to the keyboard of a piano—a full keyboard with a selection of keys on which one who is trained can play a variety without limits; a ballad to express love, a march to rally, a melody to soothe, and a hymn to inspire; an endless variety to suit every mood and satisfy every need.
How shortsighted it is, then, to choose a single key and endlessly tap out the monotony of a single note, or even two or three notes, when the full keyboard of limitless harmony can be played.
It is not unusual to find people who take an interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but give only casual attention to the ideal that the fullness of the gospel is here.
They become attracted by a single key, a doctrine, often one to which they take immediate exception and object to. They investigate it by itself alone. They want to know all there is about it without reference, in fact, with specific objection and rejection, to anything else.
They want to hear that key played over and over again. It will give them little knowledge unless they see that there is a fullness—other complementary ideals and doctrines that present a warmth and a harmony, and a fullness, that draw at the right moment upon each key, which if played alone might seem discordant.
Now that danger is not limited to investigators alone. Some members of the Church who should know better pick out a hobby key or two and tap them incessantly, to the irritation of those around them. They can dull their own spiritual sensitivities. They lose track that there is a fullness of the gospel and become as individuals, like many churches have become. They may reject the fullness in preference to a favorite note. This becomes exaggerated and distorted, leading them away into apostasy.
This concept was reiterated in 1992 by Apostle Dallin H. Oaks who quoted Elder Packer and warned members of the church about various ways in which our strengths can become weaknesses. Elder Oaks also warned about a similar problem:
“A related distortion is seen in the practice of those who select a few sentences from the teachings of a prophet and use them to support their political agenda or other personal purposes. In doing so, they typically ignore the contrary implications of other prophetic words, or even the clear example of the prophet’s own actions.
We should interpret their words in the light of their works. To wrest the words of a prophet to support a private agenda, political or financial or otherwise, is to try to manipulate the prophet, not to follow him.”
Elder Oaks’ essay has long been one of my favorites, and is worth reading in full. It was recently cited as an additional resource in the church’s January 3rd statement responding to media inquiries about the occupation of a federal facility in Oregon by citizens who were protesting federal government abuse, some of whom were members of the church.
However, instead of discussing how these principles apply to the tragic events in Oregon, I want to explore how these warnings from Elder Packer and Elder Oaks apply to a different trend I have noticed:
Among some vocal members of the church, there is a growing tendency to employ the phrase “mourn with those that mourn” as a rhetorical weapon.
This is especially evident among those dissident members who publicly oppose the church and want it to change its policies and doctrines. As a rhetorical trump card it is a remarkably effective way to shut down disagreement and opposition from those who venture to defend the church or its leaders.
It is effective because it gives the impression that the efforts of those who defend the church are inconsistent with their most fundamental covenant, made at baptism. And because those members who are most likely to be defending the church are also likely to take their baptismal covenant very seriously, they are sensitive to the suggestion that they are acting contrary to that covenant. So at its root it is meant to suggest that speaking up in defense of the church is a kind of hypocrisy.
Because it has been so successful, the phrase has morphed into a kind of mantra that is repeated and cited incessantly as a preemptive strike against faithful members who support the church’s teachings.
In fact, some people talk so much about the “baptismal covenant to mourn with those that mourn” that I fear that it would be easy for someone who is not a member of the church to get the impression that that is all Mormons promise to do when they are baptized.
But that is not what we covenant to do at baptism. In fact, this constant use of the idea is exactly the kind of error that Elder Packer and Elder Oaks warned about.
This phrase, “mourn with those that mourn” and its variants is a reference to a passage of the Book of Mormon in which the prophet Alma discusses the desires and attitudes of those who seek unite themselves to the church, and the covenant that they take upon themselves through baptism. The phrase also occurs in some translations of the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Romans. The Book of Mormon passage is found in Mosiah, Chapter 18, verses 8 through 10, where the prophet Alma is inviting the people to be baptized:
8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
Reading it in context, it is clear that citing the phrase “mourn with those that mourn” in isolation is woefully incomplete and oversimplified.
Verses 8 and 9 are not explicitly part of the baptismal covenant itself, but part of the description of the desires of those who want to be part of the fold of God. Verse 10 explains the covenant, which is very specifically to serve the Lord and keep his commandments, in exchange for which the Lord will give his Spirit in more abundance. This same covenant is echoed in the text of the sacrament prayers. So we don’t explicitly covenant to “mourn with those that mourn.” We implicitly covenant to mourn with those that mourn insofar as it is among the desires that qualify us for baptism, and inasmuch as it is included in, and consistent with serving God and keeping his commandments.
This desire to mourn with those that mourn is only one of a number of motivations and obligations involved in being baptized. They include:
- The desire to come into the fold of God and be called his people
- A willingness to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light
- A willingness to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort
- A willingness to stand as a witness of God at all times, in all things, and in all places even until death
- A desire to be redeemed of God, to be included in the righteous who will rise in the first resurrection, and to have eternal life
And this list is certainly not exhaustive, because so much more can be subsumed under the explicit covenant of “serving the Lord and keeping his commandments.”
The obligations to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those in need of comfort, and bear one another’s burdens must always be balanced with these other obligations and desires to be part of God’s fold, to stand as a witness of him even until death, and to be redeemed– all of which must be circumscribed by and consistent with the explicit covenant to serve the Lord and keep his commandments.
Some may object that mourning with those that mourn is always consistent with keeping the Lord’s commandments. But that is not true. The Book of Mormon gives us a clear example of when mourning is incompatible with our baptismal covenant. The prophet Mormon relates:
11 Thus there began to be a mourning and a lamentation in all the land because of these things, and more especially among the people of Nephi.
12 And it came to pass that when I, Mormon, saw their lamentation and their mourning and their sorrow before the Lord, my heart did begin to rejoice within me, knowing the mercies and the long-suffering of the Lord, therefore supposing that he would be merciful unto them that they would again become a righteous people.
13 But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin.
So much depends on what it is that is being mourned and why it is being mourned. The people in the time of Mormon mourned because the Lord would not allow them happiness in sin. Mormon mourned that they had fallen into such wickedness, and mourned their suffering, but he did not mourn with them because that would suggest that their reasons for mourning were righteous and that he agree with them.
So returning to the rhetorical use of “mourn with those that mourn” in use among members of the church and to the warnings of Elder Packer and Elder oaks:
I don’t think we can mourn with those who are mourning because the the Lord will not suffer them to take happiness in acting contrary to his prophets. We can mourn for them. We can mourn their suffering. But we cannot mourn with them, because we are under covenant to serve the Lord, keep his commandments, and stand as witnesses of him even until death.
Turning “mourn with those who mourn” into a overarching slogan is sloppy thinking and dangerous doctrine, especially when it is used in an effort to justify opposition to the prophets and the church.
It is an example of exactly what Elder Oaks warned about: isolating a sentence from the scriptures or a prophet to support an agenda that is contrary to both the wider context of doctrine and teachings, and to the specific teachings of the living prophets. They are not following the prophet; they are wresting the words of the prophets to undermine the living prophets.
Adapting Elder Packer’s piano analogy, those who employ this “mourn with those that mourn” rhetorical device are loudly banging on one or two notes in an effort to drown out the other notes that they do not like.
My purpose in writing is not to say that we don’t have to worry about mourning, or that we can act callously toward those who suffer. Jesus commanded us to love even our enemies. Sometimes I think that we water that down into a vague notion that real enemies don’t exist; that there are only perceived enemies, who, if we let them, will be discovered in the end not be be enemies at all– just misunderstood. But Jesus told us to love even our real enemies. He suffered for their sins and infirmities as well as ours. Because he loves them.
At the same time, we must love God and the truth. It is not loving to condone sin or excuse apostasy. Our baptismal covenant will not allow us to do so. As Apostle D. Todd Christofferson explained:
“We think it’s possible and mandatory, incumbent upon us as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, to yield no ground in the matter of love and sympathy and help and brotherhood and serving in doing all we can for anybody; at the same time maintaining the standards He maintained. That was the Savior’s pattern. He always was firm in what was right and wrong. He never excused or winked at sin. He never redefined it. He never changed His mind. It was what it was and is what it is and that’s where we are, but His compassion, of course, was unexcelled and His desire and willingness and proactive efforts to minister, to heal, to bless, to lift and to bring people toward the path that leads to happiness never ceased. That’s where we are. We’re not going to stop that. We’re not going to yield on our efforts to help people find what brings happiness, but we know sin does not. And so we’re going to stand firm there because we don’t want to mislead people. There’s no kindness in misdirecting people and leading them into any misunderstanding about what is true, what is right, what is wrong, what leads to Christ and what leads away from Christ.”
With that in mind, my objective has been to counter this oversimplification of the baptismal covenant with a more balanced and expansive understanding. When people are baptized or describe the baptism of others, it should be clear that they are making a solemn covenant to serve God and keep his commandments, not simply promising to mourn with anyone who mourns.
At the same time I hope that by exposing the manipulation of the scriptural phrase “mourn with those that mourn” as a rhetorical weapon and a wresting of the scriptures it will cease to hold any undue power to silence faithful members of the church who are fulfilling their obligation to defend the church and stand as witnesses of God.