Saskia Tielens recently shared some of her experiences of Teaching Mormonism in Germany as a Non-Mormon at Juvenile Instructor. The whole post is great – go read it if you haven’t yet – but I’m particularly struck by one point. Calling it an example of “alternative history” in Mormondom, she mentioned that an LDS missionary, a visitor to her secular classroom, “told the class that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 because LDS missionaries had been admitted into East Germany to proselytize.” This reported statement, which feels absolutely genuine to me as having come from an earnest young elder, fits into some musing I’ve been doing on how we as Latter-day Saints think about history.
Latter-day Saints do believe in a history quite different from the secular data we share with our secular peers – an alternate history of God guiding the course of nations, of an angel visiting a farm boy, of divine direction in our individual lives. In our cosmology, it’s entirely plausible that God blesses righteous nations or that he guides world events to permit the establishment of his kingdom … although we perhaps should exercise caution in making judgments quite as definite as that of the missionary in Germany. If God granted greater political freedom and economic prosperity to East Germany as a direct result of its admission of missionaries, how are we to explain the extreme poverty of so many nations who have admitted our missionaries for decades? How are we to explain political repression in some nations where Latter-day Saints live and worship?
In my youth, it was common for speakers to rhapsodize over God’s spreading of the gospel through the American LDS soldier. Testimonies were borne about how World War II was God’s method of reopening Japan to the Church, of how the Korean War divinely led to the establishment of the Church in that land, of how the Vietnam War, then in progress, evidenced God’s love for the people of Southeast Asia because so many were finding the gospel through the example and teaching of LDS servicemen. Other voices pointed out that millions of innocents died during those wars, and many more millions had their lives blighted through hunger and poverty and fear and loss of loved ones and the long, painful aftermath of war; they believed God could make use of even the worst of evils to advance his work, but that as a loving, righteous father he would not deliberately bring death and suffering and sin to so many as his preferred path to bringing the gospel to so few. In other words, they said, God blessed nations in spite of man’s wickedness, not because of it.
And yet, despite misplaced interpretations, I do believe that God plays a hand in history, probably more often than we suspect. Belief in the Book of Mormon as an ancient record assures me (1 Nephi 13) that God guided Western history to provide for the Restoration. All of our scriptures teach of divinely directed future events, future history. The family history of early Latter-day Saints with foreordained missions to bring about the Restoration was guided by God: Oliver Cowdery could not have filled his role in the translation of the Book of Mormon had he been born in circumstances that prevented his gaining an education. Parley P. Pratt and Wilford Woodruff and other spectacularly successful missionaries could not have played their roles had they been born too early or in the wrong geography. That all things necessary for the Restoration came together at the same time and in the same place is one of my assurances that God directs this work. (And yes, I’m fully aware that these statements assert faith claims that non-believers would find circular: She believes in God’s hand in history because she believes in Mormonism, and she believes in Mormonism because she believes in God’s hand in history. History doesn’t prove faith claims, but when faith exists, history is supportive of it. Deal with it, unbelievers.)
And yet we don’t believe in historical inevitability, at least in the relatively short run. In the long run, “truth is mighty and will prevail.” In the short term, though, Judas didn’t have to be the one to betray Jesus; Joseph could have chosen to reject his calling; and 20th century history might have run a very different course had Gavrilo Princip hiccupped as he fired at Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Evil, I suspect, is on its own to wreak what havoc it can; the Lord, on the other hand, seems to have contingency plans: if nothing else, his intimate knowledge of his children’s strengths and weaknesses, and his control over who is born where and when and with access to what resources, allows him to have a back-up, to raise up another adequate to fill the essential role of anyone who fails to keep premortal covenants.
I believe in God’s hand in my own life, although it’s often not obvious to me until after the fact. Looking back, I see a clear trail of guidance, even intervention: This led to that; that provided the opportunity for this, followed by the opportunity for that, which prepared me for this … My life has followed a completely nonstandard route to reach my current opportunities for service. It’s as if I made wrong turns at every key intersection in life, and yet God has somehow overcome that to put me where he meant me to be. I made a left turn early in life, and then continued to make left turns until I am finally facing the right direction again.
If you’re a regular Keepa reader, I assume that you, too, accept the premise that God plays a heavy role in human history. Where do you see his hand at work? How do you recognize his guidance or prodding in your personal history?