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Tad Callister on What It Was Like to Grow Up the Grandson of an Apostle + What He Learned Writing About the Book of Mormon

Brother Tad R. Callister was released in April as Sunday School general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ending more than a decade of service at Church headquarters.

Yet life doesn't seem to be slowing down for the 73-year-old any time soon.

When asked about possible "retirement plans," Brother Callister just smiled.

"My wife is happy. She has a lot of jobs for me around the house," he said. "She teaches the gospel doctrine class, so I'm her unofficial assistant who works the computer and puts things on the board for her."

The Callisters also plan to spend more time with grandchildren and Brother Callister is spending considerable time writing another book about "God's hand in the discovery, establishment, and preservation of America," he said.

 You'll also like: Tad Callister Explains Why He Included Opposing Arguments in His Case for the Book of Mormon

But more on that project another time. For now the author of The Infinite Atonement, The Blueprint of Christ's Church, and other gospel-themed titles is discussing his latest volume, A Case for the Book of Mormon, which he hopes will bless and help strengthen testimonies of Latter-day Saints across the Church.

"The Book of Mormon is a book for all seasons," Brother Callister wrote in chapter 1. "It is God's divine gift to every soul who wants to return to Him and become more like Him."

A Case for the Book of Mormon gives readers a comprehensive overview of every critical claim ever made against the book, along with well-reasoned responses and arguments that invite the reader to "seriously consider and weigh the many evidences of the Book of Mormon's divine authenticity," Brother Callister wrote.

Brother Brian Ashton, recently released as second counselor in the Sunday School general presidency, described the book as "excellent."

"I think his book does such a great job of helping us see rational arguments for why the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on this earth and how it came from God," Brother Ashton said. "I think it's a real treasure for the Church to be able to see some of those evidences that help to sustain and maintain faith."

In 2016, Brother Callister delivered a BYU devotional address titled, "The Book of Mormon: Man-Made or God-Given?" that helped pave the way for his book.

"Why is it so important for you individually to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon?" he asked BYU students. "Because if you do, it will become your personal iron rod. The mists of darkness may come and the unanswered questions may arise, but through it all you will have your iron rod to cling to — to keep you on the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life."

Brother Callister spoke in-depth about why he wrote A Case for the Book of Mormon and answered other questions related to his life and church service and in a recent interview with Trent Toone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trent Toone: What will you miss most about serving at Church headquarters?

Tad Callister: I think what I will miss the most is the relationships; the relationships with my counselors, with the other auxiliaries that we interacted with, the staff writers. We had an incredibly close relationship with the staff writers. I have the highest respect for them and I will miss those daily associations. I felt like it was just kind of a mini celestial kingdom up there.

I will also miss the intense concentrated study of the scriptures. I will still study the scriptures of course, but this was every day, concentrated, "How can we prepare this so it will help the members of the church better understand the doctrine?" I'll miss that concentrated study of the scriptures and trying to wrestle with how can we present it in a way that will be helpful to the membership of the church?

TT: Over your life you've had many teachers and mentors. Is there one or two that stand out?

TC: A couple come to mind. I had many good teachers in fairness.

One when I was about 8 years old, Sister Josie Halladay. I remember we had a big class and all of our names were on a sheep in this fold. If you weren’t in class, your sheep was outside the fold. I remember her talking about those who weren't there and what we can do to get them there. Her concern for the one, as an 8- or 9-year-old boy, stuck me for some reason. I've never forgot that little chart she had up on the wall.

I had some very good professors at Brigham Young University, but one was Chauncey C. Riddle, who taught philosophy. He was brilliant intellectually, but also totally solid spiritually. I learned from him that you could ask honest questions intellectually and that was not contrary to having a testimony. I think I’ve always had a testimony, but that expanded my interest in asking questions. That helped me.

TT: Elder LeGrand Richards, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1952-1983, was your grandfather. What was it like for you to grow up as the grandson of an apostle?

TC: He was an incredibly good grandfather. I lived in California at the time with my mom and dad. My mother was his daughter. We would come up at conference time and holidays.

I'll give you one example of the type of grandfather he was. When I was married and living in California, I played for the Studio City Ward baseball team and we won the Southern California championship for the Church when they used to have the old church tournament. We came up here and it was late July or early August. We were playing at like 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I mean, it was hot. We had like two people in the stands. We were all young marrieds, our wives were taking care of their kids in California, they couldn't afford to come up. All of a sudden my grandfather walks up to the bleachers at like 2 in the afternoon. And I said, "Grandfather, what are you doing here? You got a lot more important things to do than this." I remember he said, "No, Tad, I don't have anything more important to do right now than to see my grandson play baseball." That's how he was. He was very personal.

I remember him taking me through the tunnels (under Temple Square). I was awed when I was a kid to go to the Tabernacle where they had conference and he let me sit in various places.

I remember him telling me stories that I've remembered to this day ... teaching moments that would make a difference for me. He loved to play games. He was a true grandfather, not just the church leader.

TT: What motivated you to write A Case for the Book of Mormon?

TC: I’ve always loved the Book of Mormon, No. 1.

No. 2, I've felt independent from the Spirit, which is the greatest witness, that the Book of Mormon was the greatest tangible witness that we have the truthfulness of the church.

I have a few friends who left the church, one a very close friend of mine. I felt like if they truly understood the Book of Mormon and all of its intellectual as well as spiritual witnesses, that maybe another decision would have been made, if they had known that in advance.

So it was written partly for my benefit, just because I love the Book of Mormon and love studying it, and I wanted the answers to these questions. I knew the Book of Mormon was true, but I wanted the best intellectual answers that I felt were available.

I was hopeful it could be a book that would strengthen the testimonies of people who already had a testimony, but also the people who might be on the edge, that it would give them an additional witness of the truth of this great book.

No. 3 is that it would be somewhat of a defense against those who purposely attack the church.

TT: As you worked on this project, what did you learn about the Book of Mormon that you didn’t know before?

TC: One of the key things I learned was I had grown up and I had been aware of five, six, seven statements made by the Three Witnesses. I didn’t realize there was almost 200 recorded statements having to do with the Three Witnesses. When I started going through all those statements I realized what a consistency there was in their testimonies.

I think Richard L. Anderson, who compiled a lot of these, said that he had about 200 statements and there was maybe 8 to 10 recorded statements, not of the witnesses, but of people saying this is what they said, that were negative, which meant there was about 190, that were all positive. If you think as a lawyer, that's a 19 to 1 ratio. That means if you went to court, and you saw a car accident, which I put in here, and you had 19 witnesses who saw the same way, and one who didn't, absent any other evidence, if you’re impartial, you’re going to go with the witnesses. So I was overwhelmed by the number of recorded statements we have by the witnesses.

I also had not known that the witnesses’ lives were put on the line on some occasions. David Whitmer, twice; Oliver Cowdrey, once; where they were told to either deny the Book of Mormon or they'd be killed or the mobs were after them. David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdrey were hiding in the wilderness, the mobs were after them. William McClellin basically asked them, is this worth dying for? They responded "It’s true, it’s absolutely true."

So you realize that the Lord tried them not only with peer pressure, with being cut off from the church, but he also tried them with their lives. It's as though those three men were tried in every possible way by Satan to get them to deny their testimonies through peer pressure or culture or family or friends or physical threats, or money or whatever, but nothing worked. To me, that's part of the power of their testimonies to the very end.

If they really didn't have this experience, why on their deathbeds, each of them, would they voluntarily reaffirm that this took place? Why do that? What's the purpose of doing it on your deathbed if you hadn't had this experience? You're just sealing your fate if you do that, but voluntarily, it’s as though they want to say with the last breath I have in this life, I want to seal my testimony so when I get to the other side, I can look God in the face and say I was honorable. I discharged my duty with total integrity.

TT: What is the most inspiring story or evidence for you related to the historic coming forth of the Book of Mormon? Is there one that trumps all others in personal importance to you?

TC: I would just say that it’s 530 pages of incredible doctrine, history and inspiring messages. It took me 18 years to write the “Infinite Atonement” — 18 years. I don’t know how many drafts I had. But in this book, “A Case for the Book of Mormon,” my secretary said, “Do you know how many drafts you had?” I said no. She said 72 drafts. That would be different chapters or whatever, many more with the “Infinite Atonement.” I remember President (Russell M.) Nelson telling me one day he had 40 drafts of a conference talk.

There's nobody in the world that can convince me that Joseph Smith, at 23 years of age, dictated this 530-plus page book off the top of his head, with minor grammatical changes thereafter, and that was possible to do. We hear all of the critics saying, well, I think this might be wrong, and this was an anachronism, whatever. Your best proof is just to have some 23-year-old write something like the Book of Mormon in 65 days without any computer. Don't talk about how Joseph could do it, just match it. That was B.H. Roberts’ thing, just match it. If you can't, put your finger over your lips and remain silent. That's the best witness. If you think it's so easy to do, just get some brilliant 180 IQ guy over at the University of Utah and have him write a book like the Book of Mormon in 65 days without a computer, any researchers, and only one draft. Then maybe you talk to me and we'd have a conversation.

But to me, that's the most remarkable thing, it's there. It's tangible. That's the witness. If you really want to go to the heart and guts of it, test it to see if it's true. I put the Bible to the same test I put the Book of Mormon to. I read it, I prayed about it, and I came to know what was true. I put the Book of Mormon to the same test.

TT: Is there one story or character in the Book of Mormon that holds extra special significance for you or that inspired you?

TC: I read the Book of Mormon for the first time when I was 15 or 16. When I read the story about the 2,000 sons of Helaman, I thought to myself these are probably my age. There came a voice into my mind, it was not an audible voice, it was a voice that just said simply, "That story is true." For a 15- or 16-year-old boy, that was the first time I had felt the spirit that strong in my life. That was a special witness for me, and as a result, that story has always had special significance to me.

I love King Benjamin’s sermon on the Atonement. Wow, what a beautiful sermon. If you go to the Bible, you get some isolated gems. But in the Book of Mormon, you get entire sermons and masterpieces. You're trying to tell me that this 23-year-old boy wrote these masterpieces on the Atonement that give us insights that we don't have in the Bible today? I don’t think so.

TT: What insights as a writer have you gained from your study of the Book of Mormon?

TC: In the Book of Mormon the focus is always on the doctrine. Historical background was for a purpose of teaching doctrine. For me that was the lesson to be learned is that a story is nice but if it’s just a story for a story’s sake, you’ve missed the boat. The stories and the analogies are all to support and strengthen one’s understanding of the doctrine. That’s the great principle I think I learned from the Book of Mormon. The Savior’s teachings in the New Testament are the same.

TT: In your experience, how can a reader get past the surface or just reading words to go deeper, bringing the doctrine, principles and stories to life?

TC: You’ve got to be looking and say what is the doctrinal principle that’s being taught here? I think it would be difficult to go through a chapter and not to find, even in the war chapters, doctrinal principles that are being taught.

Early in the Book of Mormon, in 2 Nephi 32, Nephi says feast upon the words of Christ and they shall tell you all things that you should do. How can the Book of Mormon tell me all things that I should do? Can they tell me who I should marry or what my career I should pursue? How does it really do that? Finally the answer that came to me is it teaches the correct doctrinal principles in life. As you read, it invites the Spirit to help you use those principles to make those types of decisions.

So that's one of the great things to me about the Book of Mormon, it teaches correct principles and it invites the spirit to help you use those principles to make wise decisions in life.

Lead Image: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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