Latter-day Saint Life

A former federal court judge recalls a transformative experiment with the Atonement of Jesus Christ

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Twenty years ago, Thomas B. Griffith, who would later be appointed to the United State Court of Appeals, was a stake president called to preside over the Brigham Young University 9th Stake when he got permission to try something a bit unique in his stake. In short, every talk given in sacrament meeting or lesson shared must tie back to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. You can read or listen to Judge Griffith describe how the experiment played out but perhaps it would be best to share with you one reply we received since Judge Griffith’s episode from someone who was in that stake at the time.

“I am one of those former members of the BYU 9th stake that he referred to. I saw then, and it’s only more clear now, that the focus on the Atonement of Jesus Christ during my time in that stake saved my spiritual life,” the listener wrote. “I also love that he brought up the leadership’s vision of the members of the stake going out into the world having been ‘brought up’ in the stake and continuing that focus throughout their lives. I want to share that the vision was made explicit to us then. We felt it and were strengthened by it. I’m now one of many from my little BYU cohort that are leading families and wards continuing that charge today.”

Listen to the full podcast episode in the player below or by clicking here. You can also read a full transcript here.

Morgan Jones Pearson: You gave a talk at BYU that I loved. I listened to it the first time probably a year ago, and I sent it to my dad. And I was like, “You’ve got to listen to this.”

So in the talk, you quoted Boyd K. Packer who said, “The Atonement of Christ is the very root of Christian doctrine. You may know much about the gospel as it branches out from there, but if you only know the branches, and those branches do not touch that root, if they have been cut free from that truth, there will be no life nor substance nor redemption in them.”

And you talked about how when you were a stake president, you decided that you wanted to make sure that the Atonement of Jesus Christ was at the root of everything that was taught in your stake. And if it seemed like something didn’t, you would, you would kind of challenge that and say, “Well, how does that relate to the Atonement of Jesus Christ?” I wondered, could you tell us just a little bit about what that experience was like for you, how it changed your perception of the gospel, and how it affected your stake?

Thomas B. Griffith: Yeah, I’d love to. It was a BYU 9th stake. This is back in 2000–2004. So we had a remarkable group of young people in our stake. And with the permission of the General Authority to whom I reported, who was Elder John Groberg, we tried something a little different.

And here’s the thing that we tried. It was based on the idea that when we gather together at church, we need to have really good meetings, right. Now, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good, you know, urging people to come to church, if what happens at church is boring, and dull and that’s counterproductive. So that was the idea, that is that we need to make our meetings filled with life.

And the guide for that was Elder Packer. He suggested that there’s a certain type of teaching in the Church that has no life, no substance, no redemption in it, right? Well, we wanted to avoid that. We wanted to avoid that. And the key was Elder Packer taught that if you want to have life, substance, and redemption in your teaching, you tie it to the Atonement of Christ.

So here’s what we did. We—the stake presidency—we laid down a law. And the law was to the bishops, first and foremost the bishops, that every sacrament meeting talk was going to be about the Atonement of Christ in a direct and an express way. And we told the bishops, “This is hard work, okay. You need to sit down with the people who are going to give talks, and you need to talk this through with them.” “Go ahead, if you want to have a talk on provident living, that’s fine. That’s a really important topic. But in our stake, that talk is going to be about provident living and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”

And the point was if you can’t make that connection between the topic in sacrament meeting and the Atonement of Christ, you either haven’t thought about it enough—which is probably the case—or you’ve picked a topic that we shouldn’t be talking about in sacrament meeting. I mean, we’ve just taken the emblems of our Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection in the sacrament, the primary reason we gathered together, we ought to be able to talk about it next.

There shouldn’t be a clean break. We shouldn’t—one of my pet peeves is when members of bishoprics get—the sacrament is over and they talk about, “We’re now,” oh, they say “We’re now going to have the sacrament portion of our meeting.” Well, that’s a pet peeve for me.

Sacrament portion of the meeting? The whole meeting is sacrament meeting. So there ought to be a connection between this wonderful experience we’ve just had sharing the sacrament with one another, and then everything else that happens in—then it was a three-hour block. That was the idea. Everything should be an echo of what we’ve just done together in the sacrament.

So we went to the Bishops and laid down that law. And they got it pretty well. We then went to the next step. We went to all the teachers. And we said, “Okay, in your Sunday school class and your priesthood lessons, your Relief Society lessons—same thing with you, right.” “Same thing with you. You’ve got the curriculum; we’re going to follow that.”

But then we’d have these workshops on how you take a lesson on education, the need for education, and link it to the Atonement of Christ. We’d have workshops to do that. That was a little less successful, but it was still successful. And we didn’t, you know, we didn’t have any reports, or we didn’t measure this. But it seemed right. It just seemed right. And I’ve got to say, those meetings were remarkable meetings.

There was a Spirit in those meetings that was powerful and good. One story to finish it out. We’d been doing this for about a year. And I met with all the bishops, and I said, “Okay, we’ve been doing this for a year. What do you think? What do you think?”

We had 12 bishops in the stake. And the first bishop was this wonderful, wonderful man who said, “You know, President, with all due respect—” now when you hear that, “With all due respect,” you have a pretty good idea that what’s coming is not going to be a ringing endorsement. He said, “With all due respect,” he said, ”I think we’ve kind of overdone it, because I’m afraid that what we’ve done is we’ve reduced the Atonement of Christ to a . . . to a slogan, like a bumper sticker.” And when he said that my heart sank. And I thought, “He may be right. Maybe we’ve—maybe we’ve cheapened the Atonement by talking about it so much?” And I just had this awful feeling that maybe he was right.

Then what happened was, for me, extraordinary. One by one, each of the other bishops said, “With all due respect Bishop, no, no. Don’t change a thing.” And these were men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and they all said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever experienced in Church. I’m more excited about the gospel right now than I have ever been in my life. Don’t change a thing.”

And each one of them, [as] we went around the room, echoed that. And so as a stake presidency, we thought, “Okay, we don’t have anything else to do, right. No new programs, this is it. This is our mission. This is what we’re going to do.” And so we just repeated it, year after year.

Now, here’s part of the thinking. We had, I think we had 2500 people in our state, something like that. And we figured we had a turnover of about 50 percent a year. And we knew we were going to be a stake presidency for four or five years, the times limited in Single Adult callings. So we did the math and we figured out that we were probably going to have 6,000-7,000 young people come through our stake during our stewardship.

And our hope was, if we could get 20 percent of them committed to the idea that when we teach the gospel of Jesus Christ we focus with laser-like intensity on the Atonement of Christ—that will change lives, that will change families, that will change wards.

So that, that was, you know, maybe that’s a little ambitious, maybe Stake presidencies shouldn’t be thinking about that, but we were, and we did, and it was extraordinary. That for me, and I think for others…that was a long time ago now, that was 20 years ago now. I still hear from members of that stake, who will send me an email, or I’ll run into them in an airport, who talk about that time, and what that emphasis, what it meant, and what it means to them.

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