The Prophet Joseph Smith was a man possessed of great love toward those within the Church, as well as persons from various religious denominations. On one occasion he said: “The inquiry is frequently made of me, ‘Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?’ In reality and essence, we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”1
Sadly, religious discussions with those of other faiths too often devolve into debates or arguments over who is right and who is wrong. This need not happen when men and women of good will come together in an attitude of openness and in a sincere effort to better understand and be understood. Winning a friend is so much more enjoyable and soul-satisfying than winning an argument.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen remarked many years ago that “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Roman Catholic Church; there are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Roman Catholic Church.”2 Far too often we look upon and treat persons of other faiths on the basis of who we think they are and what we think they believe. More often than not, we are mistaken or misinformed as a result of our limited understanding.
President M. Russell Ballard taught that “The Lord expects a great deal from us. Parents, please teach your children and practice yourselves the principle of inclusion of others and not exclusion because of religious, political, or cultural differences. . . . It has never been the policy of the Church that those who choose not to listen or to accept our message should be shunned or ignored. Indeed, the opposite is true. . . . Friendship should never be offered as a means to an end; it can and should be an end unto itself. . . . Be kind to one another despite our deepest differences. Treat one another with respect and civility.”3
Currently we face tremendous challenges in our world—divorce, fatherless homes, poverty, child and spouse abuse, pornography, spreading crime and delinquency, racial unrest. It seems foolish for men and women who believe in God to allow doctrinal differences to prevent them from becoming better acquainted and eventually working together to perpetuate those time-honored values that are the foundation of a great society.
In addressing the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated: “Friends, you know what I know—that there is in the modern world so much sin and moral decay affecting everyone, especially the young, and it seems to be getting worse by the day. . . . Surely there is a way for people of good will who love God and have taken upon themselves the name of Christ to stand together . . . for the cause of Christ and against the forces of sin. In this we have every right to be bold and believing, for ‘if God be for us, who can be against us?’”4
We can be committed to the beliefs and practices of our particular church, synagogue, mosque, or temple and, at the same time, reach out to people who believe differently than we do, without compromising one whit of our beliefs or way of life. We are who we are, and we believe what we believe. At the same time, we can and should continue to build bridges of friendship and understanding with those of other faiths.
3 Frequently-Asked Questions about Religious Outreach
1. Why should I get to know persons of other faiths? Does it really matter what they believe?
Here are a few thoughts to consider:
- There is something much deeper within us than our religious beliefs—namely, our shared humanity. We are all children of the same God, and, in that sense, members of the same family.
- Most human beings are curious. “The quest for empathy can be helped along by a good dose of curiosity,” Richard J. Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary pointed out. “We ought to want to become familiar with the experiences of people who are different from us simply out of a desire to understand the length and breadth of what it means to be human. . . . We ought to want to know what makes our fellow citizens tick, why they think and act the way they do, how they have formed their deepest loves and loyalties.”5
- We can correct misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Krister Stendahl, formerly dean of the Harvard Divinity School and later Lutheran Bishop of Sweden, once offered advice on how to best understand someone of another faith: (1) go to an active, practicing, somewhat knowledgeable member of that faith; ask that person your questions; (2) if you must compare, compare their best with your best; and (3) always leave room for “holy envy.”6 As we become better acquainted with our friends of other faiths, we will inevitably come to discover and understand some of their beliefs or practices that are impressive, noteworthy, and admirable.
- The more we come to understand about another person’s religious beliefs or practices, the more we come to understand and appreciate our own faith. This is especially the case as we encounter words or phrases that are common to both religious traditions but may be understood differently.
- We can discover and delight in similarities between our two faiths and learn to face and reason respectfully on our differences. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the custodian of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is a great deal that we can learn from noble and God-fearing women and men of other faiths.
- We begin to feel a sense of responsibility toward our friends of other faiths. As Latter-day Saints, we are always disheartened when our beliefs or practices are misrepresented. Why would we ever want to misrepresent what someone else believes or practices?
2. Isn’t it my responsibility to do missionary work, to invite people to accept the restored gospel and come into the Church through baptism? Isn’t interfaith work at odds with the Savior’s charge to take His gospel to all nations?
To be sure, we are to do all we can to spread the message of the Restoration to all the world (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15–16; Doctrine and Covenants 68:8). It would be wonderful if every person on earth would investigate and accept the restored gospel and then be in a position to enjoy all the benefits and blessings that flow from it. Not all of God’s children, however, will accept the Restoration in this life, or even in the life to come. That doesn’t prevent us, however, from developing genuine, caring friendships.
There is so much misinformation in the world about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that it is crucial for members of the Church to become better acquainted with friends and neighbors. Study after study has shown that when men and women really get to know the Saints, jaundiced views of us tend to fade away. Suspicions or hesitations and even fears about relating to us are dissolved. It is extremely hard to name-call, pigeon-hole, categorize, or even demonize someone who has become a valued friend or trusted colleague. We become involved in interfaith endeavors in order to help others see us as we really are. Such activities also enable us to understand our friends better—to come to appreciate why they believe as they do, to see and value the goodness and integrity of God-fearing individuals and families.
3. What exactly are some things we share with men and women of good will from various religious traditions?
- We believe in God, our Father in heaven, and that He has a plan for the happiness and salvation of all His children.
- We want the best possible world to pass on to our children and grandchildren. If we allow our theological differences or suspicions to prevent us from working together to improve society, everyone loses, which means that Satan wins.
- We are concerned about the gradual erosion of our religious liberties. Religion and religious discourse have been pushed to the margins of our society. Many have taken the position that if people are especially devout in their faith that such persons are at best irrational and at worst dangerous. It is not uncommon in our day for a man or woman to express their religious views, particularly toward a sensitive social or family issue, only to have someone in the crowd accuse them of attempting to impose their beliefs on other people. And surely, a growing number concur, nothing could be worse.7
- As religion, religious values, and religious discourse are excluded from the public square, the success of families declines. At the same time, as families and family life are disrupted or undermined, religion and religious values begin to be discarded or ignored.8
- In recent decades, religious beliefs and practices among the younger generation have declined dramatically.9 Persons in our society who now identify themselves as “nones” or “dones”—those who have no religious affiliation, who have cut all ties with the institutional church, who speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious”—constitute almost 30% of the American population—that is, nearly 90 million people.10 In other words, our nation is in the midst of a massive and ever-spreading crisis of faith. Members of all religious denominations must work together to find solutions to stem the tide of this spiritual pandemic.
A Broader Perspective
Outreach requires a broader perspective on how God is working throughout the earth with men and women of all types and attitudes and religious persuasions. In a general conference address in April 1972, Elder Ezra Taft Benson stated: “God, the Father of us all, uses the men [and women] of the earth, especially good [people], to accomplish his purposes. It has been true in the past, it is true today, it will be true in the future.”
Elder Benson then quoted the following from Elder Orson F. Whitney in a 1928 general conference: “Perhaps the Lord needs such [persons] on the outside of His Church to help it along. They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else. . . . Some are drawn into the fold and receive a testimony of the truth; while others remain unconverted. . . the beauties and glories of the gospel being veiled temporarily from their view, for a wise purpose. The Lord will open their eyes in His own due time.” Now note this particularly poignant message: “God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people.”11
In 1978 the First Presidency of the Church (Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney) released an official statement entitled “God’s Love for All Mankind.” It declares:
Based upon ancient and modern revelation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gladly teaches and declares the Christian doctrine that all men and women are brothers and sisters, not only by blood relationship from common mortal progenitors, but also as literal spirit children of an Eternal Father.
The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals. . . .
Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are the sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father.12
The God we worship is the God of all creation, an infinite, eternal, and omni-loving Being who will do all that He can to inspire, lift, and bring greater light into the lives of His children. He is the only true God and thus the only living Deity who can hear and respond to the earnest petitions of His children. He is the God of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and all humankind. He loves us all and is pleased with any and every halting effort on our part to learn of Him, serve Him, and be true to His light within us (Doctrine and Covenants 84:46–48).
It was to Nephi, son of Lehi, that Jehovah spoke on this matter: “Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and that I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? . . . For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it” (2 Nephi 29:7, 12; emphasis added).
Alma explained that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, [people] to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). Elder B. H. Roberts of the Presidency of the Seventy offered the following insight: “God raises up wise men . . . of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend . . . but always giving that measure of truth that the people are prepared to receive. . . . While it is . . . taught by the very revelations of God themselves, that there is but one man . . . who is entitled to receive revelations for the government and guidance for the Church. . . still it is nowhere held that this man is the only instrumentality through which God may communicate His mind and will to the world.”13
Looking to the Great Millennium
Latter-day Saints believe that the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophetic dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, a dream interpreted by the prophet Daniel (Daniel 2; Doctrine and Covenants 65:1–6). Today when we speak of the kingdom of God we are almost always referring to the restored Church of Jesus Christ. The early Brethren of this dispensation, however, had a broader perspective. “We talk sometimes about the church of God, and why?” President John Taylor asked. “We talk about the kingdom of God and why? Because, before there could be a kingdom of God, there must be a church of God, and hence the first principles of the gospel were needed to be preached to all nations, as they were formally when the Lord Jesus Christ and others made their appearance on the earth. And why so? Because of the impossibility of introducing the law of God among a people who would not be subject to and guided by the spirit of revelation. Here the world have generally made great mistakes upon these points. They have started various projects to try to unite and cement the people together without God; but they could not do it.”14
On March 11, 1844, Joseph Smith organized a group of men into a special council in Nauvoo. Because it was felt that the number of men in the group should be held at fifty, it came to be known in Latter-day Saint history as the “Council of Fifty.” The council was composed of “a select circle of the Prophet’s most trusted friends, including the Twelve [Apostles] but not all the constituted authorities of the Church.”15 Significantly, not all members of the council were Latter-day Saints. Consequently, one historian suggested that “the primary role of the Council of Fifty was to symbolize the other-worldly world order that would be established during the millennial reign of Christ on earth.”16 The Council of Fifty was set up “for the safety and salvation of the Saints by protecting them in their religious rights and worship.”17 In addition, “The members of the council believed that it would protect the political and temporal interests of the Church in anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ and His millennial reign.”18
The Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ, begins when the Savior returns to the earth in power and glory. When the Millennium begins, not everyone will be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; that is, not everyone will be of one faith and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Those who have sought to abide by a celestial law, as well as those who are terrestrial in nature, who are honorable men and women (Doctrine and Covenants 76:75), will live and move and have their being on the paradisiacal earth (Articles of Faith 1:10).
President Brigham Young stated: “If the Latter-day Saints think, when the kingdom of God is established on the earth, that all the inhabitants of the earth will join the church called Latter-day Saints, they are egregiously mistaken. I presume there will be as many sects and parties then as now.”19 On another occasion President Young explained that “in the Millennium men will have the privilege of being Presbyterians, Methodists, or Infidels, but . . . every knee shall bow and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus is the Christ.”20
Those who dwell on earth during the thousand-year period of peace and glory will constitute what the Book of Mormon calls “the Church of the Lamb of God” (1 Nephi 14:10). Indeed, “All that makes for truth, for righteousness, is of God; it constitutes the kingdom of righteousness—the empire of Jehovah; and, in a certain sense at least, constitutes the Church of Christ.” The Saints are called upon “to enlarge this kingdom of righteousness both by recognizing such truths as it possesses and seeking the friendship and cooperation of the righteous men and women who constitute its membership.”21
In a significant address given at the University of Southern California, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated: “The effort to throw off traditions of distrust and pettiness and truly see one another with new eyes—to see each other not as aliens or adversaries but as fellow travelers, brothers and sisters, and children of God—is one of the most challenging while at the same time most rewarding and ennobling experiences of our human existence.”22
Because we are all children of the same Eternal Father, brothers and sisters in the family of God, we should do all within our power to eradicate the “sibling rivalry” that too frequently takes place between men and women of faith. In His closing hours on earth, Jesus Christ prayed to His Father with great earnestness that those who follow Him and profess His name might learn to live together in love, “That they all may be one: as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee” (John 17:2). In modern revelation, that same Savior implored: “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one, ye are not mine” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27).
The Prophet of the Restoration remarked: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way. Do you believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation which He revealed? So do I. Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst; and they will do it before the Millennium can be ushered in and Christ takes possession of His kingdom.”23
Lead image: On May 14, 2020, Religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and other faiths joined together in a global appeal for people to find solidarity during the pandemic in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
For more from Robert L. Millet, be sure to check out The Holy Spirit. In this engaging and doctrinally sound discussion, Brother Millet shows how the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in every aspect and facet of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is, for example, a revelator, teacher, testifier, comforter, agent of the new birth, sanctifier, and sealer, to name only a few of His roles. In The Holy Spirit, Brother Millet focuses our attention on the person of the Holy Ghost and examines His varied assignments in a way that is both spiritually strengthening and intellectually enlarging. Nothing has been written about the Holy Spirit with as much breadth and depth for decades.
- Joseph Smith Journal, 9 July 1843.
- Quoted in Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 1.
- “Doctrine of Inclusion,” Ensign, November 2001.
- “Standing Together in the Cause of Christ,” Ensign, August 2012; quoting Romans 8:31.
- Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 59–61.
- These principles are discussed in Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (New York: Harper One, 2019).
- See Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 6, 7, 13, 23. Carter ius a Professor of Law at Yale University. See also Dallin H. Oaks, “Religion’s Vital Global Role,” Ensign, June 2017.
- See Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2013).
- See Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162–70. See also John Gee, Saving Faith: How Families Protect, Sustain, and Encourage Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2020).
- Pew Research Center Report, October 2019.
- Ezra Taft Benson, “Civic Standards for the Faithful Saints,” Ensign, July 1972; citing Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, April 1928; emphasis added.
- Statement of the First Presidency, 15 February 1978.
- Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:512–13.
- Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards & Sons, 1851-86), 18:137; emphasis added; see also 1:173-74; 2:192-93; 5:265; 10:240-41; 13:126; 21:65; 25:335–36.
- Letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George S. Gibbs, April to October 1903, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, 9.
- D. Michael Quinn, “The Council of Fifty and its Members, 1842 to 1945,” Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 20, no. 2 (Winter 1980), 163.
- Council of the Fifty Minutes, March 11 and April 18, 1844; cited in Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith, eds., The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History (Salt Lake City: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2017), vii.
- The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History, vii.
- Journal of Discourses 11:275; see also 2:316.
- Journal of Discourses 12:274.
- B. H. Roberts, Conference Report, April 1906; emphasis added.
- “Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God,” address delivered at the inaugural symposium of the John A. Widtsoe Foundation, 24 April 2015, University of Southern California.
- Joseph Smith Journal, 9 July 1843; emphasis added.