The following comments were recorded at the 1993 Sunstone Symposium. Bill Russell spoke on the recurring theme as Sunstone called “The Pillars of my Faith”. He is a past president of the Mormon History Association. I don’t know who introduced him, but this is what the person said when he introduced Bill Russell.
Introduction, “William D. Russell is a professor of American History and Government at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa. He received his B.A. in Religion from Graceland College. He has his J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law, and he says he has about 70 hours of graduate study in history in St. Paul in the University of Iowa. He has published a book, Treasures in Earthen Vessels, an Introduction to the New Testament and he tells me that he was given the True Believer Comeback of the Year Award by the John Whitmer Historical Association in 1985 for affirming the Book of Mormon as legitimate scripture shortly after advocating that the RLDS Church quit publishing the Doctrine and Covenants. He is also a runner and has run 25 marathons including the LA and the Boston Marathon.”
The whole speech is interesting, and I will probably post the whole transcript in the future. But Bill spoke about a very interesting topic concerning the story of Nephi and Laban. Before we get to I thought I would give a few of Bill’s opening remarks.
I’ve been a regular attender of the Mormon History Association since 1971 and in those early meetings I met Dick Paul and Leonard Arrington, Mel Smith and a number of others here tonight. In 1984, some of my Mormon History friends suggested I ought to come to Sunstone, and so I wandered out here in 1984 and I think I met Catherine for the first time that year, and I can’t stay away ever since. Often I’m the only RLDS person here, so I just wanted to assure you that being the case you might think that I am some sort of official spokesman for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I assure you, you can be confident that I don’t speak for any of the general officers of the Church, be they high or low, standing, sitting, or prone. [audience chuckles]
So, I want to make it clear that Bill is not a spokesman for the RLDS Church (now known as the Community of Christ.) He had a very provocative perspective on the story of Nephi, and I wanted to see what you thought of his beliefs about the story.
So travelling down this path, I began to see that Joseph Smith was in real trouble, at least for me, not that he was worried. [audience chuckles] Joseph committed Mormonism to positions at odds with biblical and historical scholarship. Joseph regarded the scriptures as true, insofar as correctly translated. I discovered the problem usually wasn’t with the translation, or the transmission process, the problem usually was right there in the originals, and I also came to view the Book of Mormon as fiction, but felt it deserved it’s place in the canon of scriptures (that’s why I got that True Believers award), because it’s the founding document of Mormonism, and because it also has inspired many people to do good. But my recent experience writing a book on the 1989 mass murder in Kirtland, Ohio by an RLDS splinter prophet has made me aware that the Book of Mormon has also inspired men to do evil.
Jeff Lundgren studied the scriptures diligently, and considered the Book of Mormon the most important of the standard works, the fullness. He learned the love of guns from his father, and he was fascinated by the violence of the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament. He quoted over and over again the various passages from the Book of Mormon which warned, ‘Repent or be destroyed.’ He gathered devout Latter-day Saints who wanted to build Zion and see the return of Christ. He wanted to have faith like the Brother of Jared, faith so strong they would be able to see and feel Christ. If they could produce a community of saints who had repented of their sins, Christ would return and Zion would be established.
But the five members of the Avery family were hopelessly unrepentant, so they had to be destroyed. Jeff loved the story of Nephi beheading Laban, and stealing Laban’s treasures. That story contains two of the most horrible passages in the standard works, indeed, two of the most dreadful lines ever written: “Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes.’ ‘It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.’
The first sentence is a great justification for holy war. The second sentence would serve quite well as a justification for the inquisition. Neither passage can be condemned strongly enough. Incredibly we quote these sentences with approval, in my church anyway, and I suspect in yours. By doing so, we place terrible ideas in the minds of our members. We abdicate our responsibility to provide moral leadership in our churches if we fail to condemn ideas like that. I don’t care where they are found. Don’t ask me to flush my brain down the toilet, or ignore my moral values just because I’m reading the scriptures. And I’m confident of this: the jury that I observed in Painesville, Ohio would have sentenced Nephi to death for murder and robbery just as surely as they sentenced Jeff Lundgren to the electric chair. I see no real difference in the two cases. I’ve come to the very strong opinion that the Church has an affirmative duty to warn its members of the existence of extremely dangerous ideas in the pages of the standard works such as murder in the name of God, sexism, racism, and so forth. Perhaps Deseret Books and Herald House should place warning labels on the standard works. [audience chuckles] Some passages contained herein can be harmful to your health. Maybe we should register Bibles rather than guns.
What do you think of Russell’s take on the story of Nephi and Laban? Is it really better for one man to perish than for a nation to dwindle in unbelief?