Revelation and Surprise



This is another installment in a series of posts based on the monthly themes from, “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for January, February, and March

A mother gives birth to her child, a composer writes a new song, and a gardener’s planted seed sprouts, all to some degree of surprise. It’s not that these events were unexpected, but that the specific manner of their unfolding could not be entirely predicted. There was a moment of prestige—of revelation—natural to each. We live in an age of almost constant scientific, historical, and creative revelation, and therefore of surprise. How fitting, then, that this dispensation was inaugurated by a young man who turned out to be—and is still turning out to be—full of surprises as well.

The youth curriculum topic for April is “The Apostasy and the the Restoration.” One of the exercises suggested in the Sunday School material is to look at the chapter “Gaining Knowledge of Eternal Truths” from Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. I sometimes say that I am not a big fan of the thematic rather than whole-text approach that has been adopted for the Teachings of the Presidents manuals, but I have to admit that it is nice that this particular chapter has gathered in one place so many great quotes by the Prophet about the value of seeking knowledge and of learning truth.

Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft. …

“… Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”

Living in this age of rapidly expanding knowledge is exciting, but it can also be disconcerting, especially when the findings of science or history seem to run against other things that we have understood or long held to be true. There is a security in certainty and conviction that is basic to human happiness. If the quantum uncertainties of physics were amplified in our daily experience—if things randomly appeared and disappeared, if our languages were confounded on a daily basis, if we woke up in a different country and family every day—it is hard to imagine how we would keep our sanity. We need some basic level of stability, and we should not be blown about with every wind of doctrine. But when a new truth “is clearly demonstrated to our minds,” the time for change is upon us, and it will nearly always involve an element of surprise, or in other words, revelation.

The early saints who lived and preached the principle of plural marriage with such conviction and at such personal cost would have been shocked beyond expression if they had been told how that practice would come to be regarded by the same church 100 years later. The theory of evolution, so divisive and offensive to some leaders and members alike just a generation ago is now a basic part of the curriculum at Church-sponsored universities, held in place by its incontrovertible utility to the advancement of science.

What’s next for us?

Whatever changes come or do not come, they will invariably entail some discomfort—either because we as a people will be called upon to adapt to new truths or new understandings, or because we as a people will be called upon to stand our ground and not adapt even as the surrounding culture evolves away from us. Both kinds of change have the potential to be wrenching.

Joseph, again:

I say to all those who are disposed to set up stakes for the Almighty, You will come short of the glory of God. To become a joint heir of the heirship of the Son, one must put away all his false traditions.”

As Mormons, we often take comfort, and perhaps some pride, in the fact that we have so many satisfying answers to questions of the soul. These have come to us through the revelations that Joseph and others in our prophetic tradition have received. But if we teach that ours is an age of on-going revelation, and if we claim, as Joseph did, to embrace all truth no matter is provenance, then we must be prepared for some surprise if and when what we learn doesn’t always neatly comport with what we thought we already knew. In other words, we might be more than pleasantly reassured and vindicated by new revelations. We might be shocked. We might be challenged. We might have to reconsider paradigms or long-cherished certainties.

As Aaron R. has beautifully noted recently, the Lord does not seem to mind doing this to his people. After all, he came to his own, who were looking for a mighty deliverer, as a homespun nobody from a nowhere village called Nazareth, teaching a ridiculous message of “turn the other cheek.” Not what they had been lead to believe (rightly or wrongly) was going to happen. Did God’s purposes fail in that, or were earth-bound human expectations just confounded? Do we suppose that we are in a more privileged position than they with respect to this unpredictable God of ours?

Socrates taught that the beginning of wisdom is to recognize the fact when we do not know. The author of Proverbs wrote that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. In a Mormon worldview, these might properly be the same thing: The beginning of wisdom is to know that there is a God, and that we might not have a clue what that God is about to do next.


  1. Thank you so much for this post. Revelation in my own life has not always been tiddy, predictable or comfortable and I take comfort in the fact that this seems to be the case for others I know now or read about in scripture.

  2. Love this. I think my husband has at least one week’s youth SS lesson in the bag.

  3. Master Blaster says:

    The greater our island of knowledge becomes, so does the circumference of the shoreline of ignorance increase.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Solid. Thanks Morgan.

  5. Anita A. Davis says:

    Morgan, that was so short. I wish you had gone on and on. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis said about a revealed religion, something like, if we really want revelation, we’d better get used to surprises. If we want to make up our own religion out of our own heads, then there won’t be any surprises. I’ll take revelation.

  6. Excellent, Morgan. I will be sharing some of this post with my own Sunday School class.

  7. Now that’s living dangerously!

  8. Why? (Rhetorical question. I know why in some areas.)

    I’ve already gone over the weeping God of Mormonism post here with them – with the Bishop attending the class – and sent the link to their parents – talking about divine responsibility for the effects of the Fall and how Jesus’ atonement included the suffering his own actions caused others, both pre-mortally and in his mortal life. I know my audience and local leadership, and I know I’m blessed.

    My Bishop told me to treat them as if it was a Gospel Doctrine class – that they’ve been taught how to read the flight manual and now they need to learn to fly the plane on their own. For many, that would fit within the categories in the OP title, I know, but I believe it is more common than many people understand and believe – especially out here in “the mission field”.

  9. Oh, my comment was just a lousy attempt at self-deprecating humor. I absolutely agree with you (and Reuben J. Clark) that our youth are wonderful (at least for purposes of this comment!) and you can “teach it to them straight.” They want to be challenged and invited to really think about things. It sounds like you are a fantastic teacher. Your students are blessed.

  10. “…then we must be prepared for some surprise if and when what we learn doesn’t always neatly comport with what we thought we already knew. In other words, we might be more than pleasantly reassured and vindicated by new revelations. We might be shocked. We might be challenged. We might have to reconsider paradigms or long-cherished certainties.”

    Well put, Morgan. I like the idea of asking myself what has surprised me lately, and if nothing has, I might need to pay closer attention.

  11. Q Are there investigators who do view it as an adversarial process

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