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God’s Hand in History

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 13, 2012

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?



12 Comments »

  1. This is a fascinating topic for discussion, Ardis. As you know I am both a regular reader and someone who doesn’t necessarily accept the premise about God and history. But I am someone who is writing on Mormon history and part of my work involves how particular narratives of history are part of that history.

    So you’ve given me some good things to think about here, and I expect other replies will too.

    Comment by Mina — August 13, 2012 @ 8:58 am

  2. Interesting timing–God’s hand again? Just yesterday in priesthood meeting our lesson from the George Albert Smith manual, “Advancing the Work of the Lord.” At one point I made a long and meandering comment about how the terrible wars of the first half of the 20th century had resulted in great growth of the church worldwide, both because of they took Mormon servicemen and -women from the rather insular Mountain West to all parts of the U.S. and the world, but also because it put the responsibility of directing the work of the church on local leaders in nations that had previously depended on missionaries from the U.S.

    If God could use Assyria to chasten Israel, or Persia to free the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity, He surely can use modern governments to help accomplish His work. That does not however suggest that those governments, or the men and women who direct them, are good or righteous or deserving of our praise or honor.

    Pres. Kimball encouraged the church to pray that nations might be opened for missionary work. Do I believe that those prayers made a difference? Absolutely. Do I have any idea how they made that difference? Absolutely not.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 13, 2012 @ 9:43 am

  3. As a believer, I do accept that God manifests his hand in history, but I also generally think that such manifestations are inscrutable on anything more than a deeply personal level.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 13, 2012 @ 10:41 am

  4. Both historically and personally, I can see God’s action, and God’s reason for acting, in specific events. But I can’t see a general rule or other way of categorizing them.

    Comment by Adam G. — August 13, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  5. I’ve pondered some of these same thoughts myself over the last few years, and have come to a similar conclusion. Nothing in the plan of salvation can prevent the exercise of free will, so I firmly believe that the Lord has contingency plans to bring about long term change, but it is always pretty hard to spot these things in the present. I know some members of the church feel like that the church’s growth and development has had an air of inevitability about it and that it couldn’t have come about any other way. I’m not so sure; who knows who may have failed, or who may have stepped up unexpectedly by exercising their agency? I do think we have the capability on rare occasions of surprising our Father in Heaven in a good way, just as much as we often disappoint him.

    As always, hindsight offers a better view, but even then, it is rarely 20/20, and as Stapley said, highly personal.

    Comment by kevinf — August 13, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

  6. God’s hand in history seems like a very Old Testament idea, especially when we talk about wars being used to spread the gospel. It doesn’t sound like something Jesus would espouse, or Paul. I think we need to be careful in how we apply such thinking. If we really believe the ends justify the means, we can put our shoulders to the wheel of a lot of evil.

    Comment by ray — August 13, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

  7. I tend to think that Jesus is a very Old Testament kind of god, considering that he was Jehovah, too.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — August 13, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

  8. I have thought that God allows bad things to happen and can use anything that happens for good…but there are some pesky quotes and scriptures that imply a more direct involvment.

    first we have this doozy from neal A maxwell..we could not trust in the perfectness of God’s judgement if we did not first know that He foresaw and carefully calibrated Or learning experiences accordingly.

    Dn’t find maxwell as easy to dismiss as say…brigham young. Yet this quote is annoying. It sounds like a scientist adding just this much torture and pain to make the mix perfect.

    Then there is Nephi, who gained the power that whatever he prayed would be right…and then is asked to pray for a famine. elijah has a similar experience. Which makes me wonder if I would ever want that get whatever you ask power. It feels like there is a lot of peripheral damage there..how can you possibly figure out every little thing and how it will affect every person.

    Other times trials are so personal and so very difficult, .it’s hearetbreaking to consider God up there measuring exactly that much out.

    Comment by Britt — August 13, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

  9. This reminds me of this post and the debate it provoked over whether God can use bad people to accomplish His ends.

    My opinion is that God very carefully guides the fate of nations, and that the same righteousness factors that determined prosperity and peace in Book of Mormon times (and the OT) are at work today. At the same time I recognize that this is necessarily imprecise, as the rain falls on the just and unjust, and cities of Sodom are spared for the few righteous.

    In today’s world though, this worldview is politically incorrect. (See Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A…) Decades ago, General Authorities used to make public pronouncements along the lines of Ardis’ original post. Now, for whatever reason, they don’t.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 13, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

  10. I have thought about this a lot with the direction my life has taken. I truly believe that God places choices in my path. A few times I have made wrong choices for me, and I can see how he has used other opportunities and choices to guide me back to where I should have gone. This may not make much sense, but I see where the Lord has definitely guided me and put people in my path to help me.

    So, if he takes such pains to direct me in the right direction, then surely he can guide the things happening in the world, back in Old Testament times and today. However, there are choices that need to be made by our world (or city or state) leaders, and sometimes they choose wrongly (at least in my opinion).

    Comment by Maurine Ward — August 14, 2012 @ 1:08 am

  11. The details of my experience don’t really matter to anyone but me, but if surviving childhood incest, an abusive spouse, church leaders who were fallible men and did not always treat me well, a court case that was based on lies and was ultimately dismissed for lack of evidence, using all of our retirement savings on a good defense attorney, and having back problems that originated in childhood but waited until two weeks after the case was dismissed to become debilitating, can lead to a crisis of faith that led to an even deeper and more meaningful understanding of the Savior and the Atonement; it is easy for me to assume that I am not the only one that Heavenly Father gently watches over.

    (I know the sentence was long and my English teacher mother would have a fit. I am tired and my back is cranky, so it will stay the run on sentence that it is.)

    Julia

    Comment by Julia — August 14, 2012 @ 1:43 am

  12. It will be interesting some day to find out what exactly was the hand of the Lord and what was just coincidence. Sometimes, as in the timing of East Germany allowing missionaries in and out relative to the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems easy to infer causality. Other times it’s much more subtle.

    Personally, I don’t know, but I like what LeGrand Richards used to say about such coincidences: “I don’t know if the Lord had anything to do with that one or not, but I always thought he did!”

    Comment by lindberg — August 14, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

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