“Why are the Latter-day Saints a peculiar people?” Ensign, Apr. 1988, 50–51
John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Council of the Twelve from 1921 until his death in 1952.
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.)