Remember back to the beginning of 2020? I know, it seems a million years ago. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020 was supposed to be the year that we joyfully celebrated the 200th anniversary of the beginnings of the Restoration, when Joseph Smith walked into the grove of trees and had his First Vision. But when COVID-19 hit hard beginning in March, it seems like most of the air was let out of our Restoration party balloons.
As the world got shut down last spring, some people took the opportunity to learn new skills, cook new foods, or catch up on sleep. Me? I wrote a book, called Restoration: God’s Call to the 21st-Century World.
Even if as a church we couldn’t have a big party, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Restoration, especially what it means to us today. I’m a historian, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the past. But as a person who lives in the present, I’m actually more interested in the Restoration’s third century than its first two. I can learn a lot from what my predecessors in the Restoration experienced, but I can’t change the past. What I can shape is the present and the future—the ongoing Restoration that I’m a part of, and that I hope my kids and grandkids will be a part of too.
I also wanted to write a follow-up to my previous book, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. I wrote Planted in response to the tidal wave of faith crisis that has hit the church (and our families) over the past decade or two. While it’s essential that we respond to the questions, concerns, and doubts that many people have, I believe it’s equally if not more important to express a positive view of what the Restoration is and why and how it can matter to us, individually and collectively. As Bruce Springsteen once sang, “At the end of every hard-earned day / People find some reason to believe.” Those of us who believe that our hard-earned faith matters need to give people reasons to believe.
So what are some of those reasons? One of my friends who read an early manuscript of Restoration said that the subtitle should have been “Why Mormonism Is Way Cooler Than You Think It Is.” Sure, we have our problems as a church and a people, and I spend a chapter talking about some of the “baggage” that I think we have to unload as we build Zion together. But mostly, I love the gifts that God has given us through the Restoration, and which I believe that God wants us to share with the world. We have an incredible theology, we have new scripture, we have wards where we learn to love people who are different, we have priesthood ordinances and covenants through which we feel the power of God in our lives, we have the gift of revelation both to prophets and apostles and to each of us as individuals…and on and on.
I fear that those of us who have been in the church a long time have become jaded to just how amazing this stuff is. As I say in the book, “When our Primary children sing ‘I Am a Child of God,’ they are doing something radical. They are affirming the most important fact that every person on earth needs to know: that they are a daughter or son of a Heavenly Mother and Father. . . . If there is one truth that the Restoration must shout from the rooftops to every man, woman, and child among every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, it is that they are children of Heavenly Parents who love them infinitely.”
While Latter-day Saints have been given many pearls of great price, I believe that God has given other people—including other religions—some priceless pearls too. In 1978 the First Presidency affirmed this when they taught, “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 bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” How great is that! Our Heavenly Parents love all their children, so of course they would bless them with light and love. Part of the joy of the Restoration is our knowledge that God’s love is spread throughout the world, and so that we can gather truth, beauty, and goodness from God’s children everywhere. We have much to share, and much to learn.
The main thing that I learned, and the main thing that I hope readers of my book take away, is just how expansive the Restoration is. The Lord testified that he established his church “in the last days for the restoration of his people” (D&C 84:2). Nephi similarly foresaw that God’s work would commence “among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, to bring about the restoration of his people” (2 Ne. 30:8). In the church we often talk about “the restoration of all things.” But I’m convinced that God has always cared more about people than things. God has restored all those things with one overarching purpose in mind: to restore God’s people to wholeness. As followers of Jesus, that’s what we’re called to do too.
This generation wants to change the world for the better. That is a godly impulse, one that I believe comes from the Holy Spirit. What I hope readers of Restoration will realize is that their desire to make the world a better place—to restore their sisters and brothers to wholeness—doesn’t have to be something that is adjacent to their religion, but rather is firmly part of it. And that, I think, is a pretty good “reason to believe.”