CES Reply: A Final Book of Mormon Sermon

I’ve been reminded that I’ve been slacking off in updating my serialized reply to the CES Letter. I apologize. I’m putting together several new projects for Canonizer designed to get people to use the Canonizer site, so I’ve neglected the serialization of my revised reply, which you can read in its entirety here.

The main purpose of serializing the reply has been to try to spur participation in Canonizer’s Latter-day Saint Survey Project, which you can see in the links at the bottom of this post. So far, while people have been reading the reply, the Canonizer interface has proved to be somewhat daunting, so future projects will be designed to demonstrate the value of the Canonizer consensus-building tools more directly.

In the meantime, I want to pick up where I left off back in March. Jeremy had thrown everything he had at the Book of Mormon, and he had come up woefully short. We rejoin the reply, already in progress:

I would hope, at this point, that it’s obvious to readers that you haven’t managed to lay a glove on the Book of Mormon. You have provided several meager, contradictory, poorly-researched and easily-debunked explanations for its origins; you have completely ignored the significant external and internal evidence as to its authenticity, and you have tried to dismiss it entirely based solely on the weirdness of a rock in a hat. And, of course, your arguments pale in comparison to the nearly two centuries of assaults that book has endured from all sides.

And yet, the Book of Mormon still stands. Why is that?

I’ll answer by way of a story and a sermon.

In early 2015, my father, former Utah Senator Robert F. Bennett, discovered that he had pancreatic cancer.

Prior to his diagnosis, Dad had planned to move from his townhouse in Arlington, Virginia to his his childhood home in Salt Lake City, which he had purchased more than a decade earlier with the intent of living in Salt Lake City full time. But the cancer changed his plans, and he decided to seek treatment at John Hopkins University Hospital, which had a global reputation for being the best place to receive treatment for pancreatic cancer. The cancer had not spread, but the tumor was impinging on an artery, which made it impossible to remove. The goal, then, was to shrink the tumor by means of chemotherapy and then, by means of surgery, slice it out of his body.

It seemed a good plan at the time, but the tumor remained stubborn, and, while the chemo kept it from growing, it wasn’t shrinking, either. The goal shifted. The new plan was to kill the tumor and just leave it there. After another round of chemo and a new round of radiation, this was the presumed outcome. Dad came back to Utah for Christmas, and all seemed to be well. He had survived for a year after his diagnosis, and the idea that he had more years to come seemed like a real possibility.

Alas, no. The last day of February, 2016, we learned that the cancer had spread, and spread aggressively. He had only a few months left to live. Maybe weeks. It was time to get his affairs in order.

Since leaving the Senate, Dad had been extraordinarily active, and he had no interest in slowing down. Cancer had caused him to streamline his activities – he resigned from all the corporate boards that he said he “didn’t want to be on anyway” – but he still wasn’t willing to retire. He only focused on the things that truly mattered to him.

Learning that his days were definitely numbered, even more things fell by the wayside. There were only a handful of projects that remained a high priority, and his scheduled April 10, 2016 fireside on the Book of Mormon was at the top of his list.

It was back in 2009, that Deseret Book published Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon, a book Dad had been working on for the better part of seven years. Its release raised the eyebrows of a number of political pundits who thought it nothing more than a campaign gimmick, as Dad, at the time, was engaged in a very tough race that he eventually lost. But time has been quite kind to the book, and many now recognize it as a sober and valuable work.

“In my own turn, to be perfectly candid, when I first heard that Bennett had written such a manuscript, I doubted that it would be of much value,” wrote your favorite professor Daniel Peterson. “He was, after all, not a specialist, and I was certain that a busy senator had little time to keep up with the explosion of scholarship on the Book of Mormon that has occurred over the past several decades. What, beyond a shallow rehash, could it possibly offer?

“The answer, I quickly found out, was plenty. ‘Leap of Faith’ … is a surprisingly good book.” He also said that “[i]t was plainly the product of sustained, careful reflection, not a hasty political ploy.”

President Henry B. Eyring went even further. As the concluding speaker at my father’s funeral in Salt Lake City, President Eyring called Dad’s book “possibly the best defense of the Book of Mormon ever written.” (I think that would make a pretty good blurb on the back of the paperback edition.)

Dad had long been passionate advocate of the Book of Mormon, and he was frustrated with this who refused to take it seriously. Indeed, the catalyst for writing “Leap of Faith” was the book “Mormon America” by Richard and Joan K. Ostling, which essentially dismissed the book as an obvious 19th Century invention and not an ancient record, siding with those who “assume that Joseph Smith wrote it” and that its origins have a “commonsense, naturalistic explanation.” From Dad’s point of view, the Book of Mormon was divinely designed to defy such easy and intellectually lazy dismissals, and he felt it necessary to demonstrate that faith in the Book of Mormon and reason-based arguments in favor of its historicity were not mutually exclusive. This idea animated him even into the waning hours of his life.

The assignment to give a fireside on the subject of the Book of Mormon came from the bishop of the Arlington Ward, and Dad saw this as more than just another speaking opportunity. He felt this was a calling from God, and he prepared accordingly. When he was told the cancer had spread, he almost immediately said, “I’ve got to stay alive for the fireside.” He repeated this over and over again, and the mantra worked. On the night of April 10, 2016, my father sat on a stool in the Arlington Chapel’s cultural hall and delivered a 50-minute sermon on the Book of Mormon. Weakened by cancer, he stayed seated much of the time, but he repeatedly stood to write on a blackboard, diagramming much of the book’s complexity for the gathered congregation. He spoke, as was his custom, without ever referring to notes. He spoke clearly and forcefully, and all who attended knew they were seeing something remarkable. (You can listen to a rough recording of the fireside and read a transcript here.)

That was Sunday. And on Monday morning, he suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzed and confined to a hospital bed. He died three weeks later.

To his family, this seemed clear evidence that the Lord was sustaining my father specifically to share this one, simple message. After the fireside, Dad’s work was done, and he was called home. So whatever this message was seemed likely to be a pretty big deal. 

PICTURED, L to R: Bob and Sam Bennett; Jim and Jeddy Bennett
Those little boys graduated from high school last week.

So what was the message for which the Lord kept him alive to deliver?

“Well, the time is gone,” he said about forty-five minutes into his presentation, “but I need to end with the main point.” He recognized this was an odd way to structure a sermon. “You say, ‘Gee, you’ve been rambling for forty-five minutes. Get to the main point.’”

Prior to the “main point,” Dad had spent all his time recounting the various compelling evidences for the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. He cited the existence of Nahom and plethora of metal plates that prove that writing sacred records on plates and burying them for future generations was a practice rooted in antiquity. He also highlighted the use of ancient Egyptian names in the Book of Mormon that were unknown at the time of the book’s publication.

“All of this is interesting,” he said, “and it’s fun, and it’s important for us to know as we get attacked by those who are leaving the Church by telling Joseph Smith was a fraud, the Book of Mormon is a forgery, and so on – important for us to have the tools [to address these issues.]” But he insisted that “it’s not the main point.”

“You don’t need to know about the location of Nahom,” he said. “You don’t need to know about the proliferation of plates. You don’t need to understand about ancient names in order to live a more successful and worthwhile life.” Had he thought about it, he could have also said that you don’t need to know about the rock in the hat.

So what is it you need to know? Dad’s answer was simple:

“You need to know about the Lord Jesus Christ.”

He recounted an experience from his mission in Scotland more than sixty years earlier, in which he met Bill and Marian Proctor. “When we called on Bill and Marian Proctor for the first meeting, we had left a Book of Mormon with Marian,” he said. “We had gone tracting that morning, came back that night. He was reading it – Bill Proctor was reading the book by the fire, which I took as a good sign. And then he stood up and came to me, and he said, ‘Look, lads, I know why you’re here, and you’re wasting your time. I have no intention of joining your church. But this is an interesting book you have.  So I’ll tell you what let’s do. I’ll buy your book, and you go on your way, and we’ll both save time. Agreed?’

“I said, ‘Agreed. Yep. But as long as we’re here…’

“Okay, so as long as we’re here, we sat down, and we gave them the first discussion of the Book of Mormon. And then we asked the magic question – when would be a good time for us to come back? And he gave us an appointment back, and there’s much more to the story, but very powerfully, before I left Scotland…”

Then Dad started to tear up. “Excuse me,” he said. “I get dewy-eyed at the dedication of a parking lot.”

After regaining his composure, he continued. “Before I left Scotland, I said to him, ‘When did you know? Bill, when did it happen [that you knew] the Book of Mormon was true?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that first night.’ He said, ‘The Spirit was there overwhelmingly, telling me it was true.’”

Bill Proctor “didn’t need any internal or external validations, or any intellectual analysis. All he needed was an open heart and the presence of the Holy Ghost, and he knew. The Book of Mormon can survive any attack by any enemy of the Church because the Proctor example has been repeated millions of times, in every culture, in every country, all around the world.”

Dad was absolutely right.

That’s it for the Book of Mormon. Next time, we get into the multiple accounts of the First Vision. In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!