FAIR and Me

My Engagement with FAIR

FAIR is an organization devoted to providing apologetic defenses of the Church and its history, scripture, doctrine and practice. I’m not entirely sure when it came into existence; I’m guessing in the mid-90s. I didn’t know of its early iteration, because back in those olden days pre-blogs and podcasts, the internet world of mass communication was divided between message boards and e-mail lists. FAIR’s original form of outreach was via a message board, but I wasn’t much of a message board guy, and I preferred e-mail lists. The big e-mail list back then was Mormon-L, which I was never on. I hung out on several niche e-mail lists: one devoted to history, another devoted to philosophy, but mainly I engaged with Scripture-L, which was operated by Greg Woodhouse out of California. I loved that old list. Brant Gardner was working out the draft of his Book of Mormon commentary there (now published by Kofford), and I first e-met Julie Smith there, author of the excellent Mark volume of the BYU New Testament Commentary series.

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Halloween Month Begins at BCC Press with The Darkest Abyss

From the very beginning of William Morris’s new book, The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories, we are presented with an interpretive problem. Are these strange stories about Mormons? Or are they stories about strange Mormons? Fortunately, we don’t have to think about this much, because the answer is both—clearly, abundantly, terrifyingly, and marvelously both.

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Empathy in the back seat

I am your older brother. I have been around the block a little more than you. I feel responsible for how you develop. I might even say it is my duty to teach you how to live a good life. But life isn’t easy and sorrows abound. That is why I feel your pain, even as I force you to hit yourself repeatedly in the face in the back seat of our car, currently driving to Grandma’s.

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Bishop Caussé’s talk was really good

The implications of stewardship and environmental issues are deeply profound. Even if the talk didn’t go into many specifics, it’s great to see environmental responsibility figure prominently in our doctrine. Tending to the earth is a salvific act.


Responding to Changes from On High, and Other Things that Never Happen in a Vacuum

Yesterday, the official organs of the LDS Church announced changes in the church’s For the Strength of Youth guide, which as just about anyone who was an active participant in church programs between the ages of 12 and 18 anytime in the past 60 years (but particularly the past 30) knows, has been a more-or-less official guide to the standards enforced at youth activities and the lessons preached in untold thousands of sacrament meeting talks, youth conferences, Girls Camp meetings, and more. This wholesale rewrite orients the publication around general principles and personal choices, with the explicit condemnations of tattoos, extra piercings, bare shoulders or midriffs, and “passionate kissing” now abandoned, and even same-sex attraction receiving, if not any kind of broad acceptance, at least much more tolerant language. It is a much-needed, wholly positive set of changes, and deserves nothing but applause. My wife and I a little upset about it (though about its roll-out, not its substance). [Read more…]

Oman, A Possible Theology of Same-Sex Marriage Sealings

This morning, Nate Oman posted what may be the most important and consequential piece of Mormon theology I’ve read in a long time over on his Substack. In it, he explores whether and how same-sex sealings could fit in Latter-day Saint theology.

Those of you who know Nate will be unsurprised to find that it is a thoughtful, careful, insightful, empathetic, and fundamentally faithful exploration. He takes as his cue D&C 9, which both describes a stupor of thought as evidence that what we do is not aligned with God’s will and instructs us to study questions out in our mind to figure out what is right, then present our findings to the Lord for confirmation.

Nate also doesn’t let ideas off easy. While acknowledging that the church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community does not feel just or fair, he doesn’t consider that, of itself, a compelling theological argument for same-sex sealings. At the same time, he finds our assumption of “heterosexual exaltation” equally baseless.

Instead, he advocates what I will call a theology of humility. He sketches the gaps in our understanding and application of sealings both today and through church history, how those gaps undercut our easy assumptions, and why those gaps allow for same-sex sealings.

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Setting Apart Our Daughters to Prepare and Pass the Sacrament

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

“Dad, can I ask you a question about the priesthood?” my daughter inquired on a recent Saturday afternoon. 

“Sure… let’s hear it,” I encouraged.

“In our church we believe that when women are set apart to do a calling, they fulfil that calling using the priesthood.  Is that right?”

I affirmed that she was correct. “Yes, that is what Elder Oaks explained back in 2014. He said that when women act in any calling they exercise priesthood authority in performing duties associated with that calling.”

My daughter nodded at my reply (I guess she knew she was right), and continued along these lines: “Then why can’t the Bishop just call the young women to be ‘sacrament passers’ or ‘sacrament preparers’ and then set them apart to do the calling? I mean, if the church is going to keep saying that the priesthood is needed to do those things, and if women have access to the priesthood through callings, then by calling the young women to these responsibilities and setting them apart they should have all the priesthood they need… right?” She made eye-contact with me and waited patiently for a reply.

I took a few beats to think about her suggestion (honestly something I’d never considered before, at least not in the way she presented it).  “You know what?” I said, “that makes sense to me; I don’t know why we couldn’t do that.”  And with that, my daughter gave a little shrug and walked out of the room.

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A Comic (But Not Comical) Take on Mormon History

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

As an intellectually-inclined, book-obsessed, life-long member of the Mormon Church, I have read many histories of my religion. I’ve read so many, in fact, that unfortunately I sometimes forget that such histories aren’t necessarily being written for knowledgeable believers like myself, and I end up criticizing them for getting some small detail wrong or for skipping over some academic controversy, forgetting that the purpose of good histories is to tell a story, one that draws you in. And when it comes to telling a story about a religious movement, presenting something compelling is essential, because if the story-teller can’t convey the circumstances or the feeling that drew people into the faith in the first place, the history can’t succeed at all.

All of that is to say that I wish I had been able to get over my intellectual pre-occupations and more fully enjoy the amazing accomplishment of Noah Van Sciver’s Joseph Smith and the Mormonsa wonderfully researched and captivatingly (and sometimes quite beautifully) drawn graphic novel when I first read it. Across more than 400 pages, Sciver presents an unconventional telling of the 19th-century, frontier American beginnings of the faith he was raised in, departed long ago, but has maintained a curiosity about and a confused sympathy for ever since. The tale it tells is mostly straightforward; it emphasizes some characters who rarely get much attention in typical Mormon histories, mostly bypasses some of the most intriguing beats in the story of Mormonism, and some might even argue that it is overly apologetic in its treatment of Joseph Smith. But as a literary whole, it needs to be acknowledged as a history as solid as many more scholarly ones, something I didn’t appreciate at first. [Read more…]

Faith, Reason, and CES

Last week, the Deseret News published an essay by Elder Clark Gilbert, the commissioner of CES. (Remember, CES is over the church’s secondary education system, including the BYUs and Pathways.) In it, he argues for the distinctive—and critical—role religiously-affiliated colleges and universities play in our broad network of secondary education.

And honestly, I found the essay deeply troubling.

Not, let me point out, because I disagree with Elder Gilbert’s premise. I’ve spent my entire academic career teaching at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. We’re a Jesuit school, and our sense of Jesuit identity is central to our mission and to the way we educate our students. This mission encourages us to center justice, as well as the well-being of our students, faculty, and staff. It motivates and permeates the education we provide.

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Once more for the people in the back

There is no contradiction between the first and second great commandments. They are the same thing.

That is all.

How to beat an autocrat: Fear not—i.e. don’t cave, friends

by Abigail J.​, CES employee

A few months ago I wrote regarding the problematic nature of changes to conditions of employment (“opted-into” or not) and increased scrutiny over CES faculty. Some of you commented with further information from your corners of the CES world, including changes to the endorsement questions being sent out to bishops. Peggy Fletcher Stack then picked up the story, and her characteristically fantastic reporting subsequently drew out something of a confession (albeit a misleading half-truth of one) from the Church Newsroom hours later: indeed the endorsement questions were changing—“for new hires” so they said.

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Value and Giving Things Up: Some Thoughts on Volleyball, Muskets, Clergy Confidentiality, Costly Signaling, and, of course, BYU

I believe—really, really believe—that the BYU Athletics Office spoke for the University and the entire Church when it said, in response a recent incident at a volleyball match, that “All of God’s children deserve love and respect, and BYU Athletics is completely committed to leading out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice of any kind and rooting out racism.”

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BCC Press is Baaaack—and Here is Corianton

After a brief summer hiatus, BCC Press is back with our ELEVENTH book release of 2022. And boy, are we excited.

The Corianton Saga, edited by the inimitable Ardis E. Parshall, represents years of careful archival work, transcribing, and editing a series of documents that, taken together, tell one of the wierdest and most wonderful stories in the Mormon Universe.

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This is Wrong

I am temperamentally and philosophically disinclined to Internet activism, and I am generally not righteous enough to be calling others to repentance. But I want to be on the record about this.


This is wrong. And it’s not just wrong that one fan was yelling the N word. It’s wrong that all the other fans, and the BYU team and coach did nothing. There is no excuse for silence or politeness in this situation. We have to do better. ALL of us.

New Institute Class: towards a “pedagogy of the question”?

David Aubril is a French teacher and regular BCC guest blogger. He follows with great interest the contemporary debates on Gospel and Church matters from France.

I recently received an email from the Church about a new Institute class, Finding answers to our questions. I went through the materials and found it very interesting. Lesson 3, in particular, questions the idea that “it is inappropriate to ask questions regarding the doctrine, teachings, policies, and history of the Church” and encourages students to accept their questions as part of the faith process. Elder Uchtdorf explains: “Inquiry is the birthplace of testimony. Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn’t feel that way. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness ; it’s a precursor of growth.”

Will that new class initiate a shift in our teaching practices?

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Kate Holbrook (1972-2022)

KateKate Holbrook (born January 13, 1972) died August 20, 2022, her mortal life ended by a rare cancer of the eye that threatened for a decade before taking her from us over the course of the last year. We are utterly bereft, and we are also filled with the joy of her existence. Kate was born in Santa Barbara, California, in the desperate confusion of the early 1970s, to Kathleen Stewart and Robert Holbrook. Kate was raised by her mother and her grandmother, Belle Fillmore Stewart, in Provo, Utah. After serving a Church mission to Samara Russia and graduating from Brigham Young University, she moved to Boston because she’d loved a rainy afternoon spent there when she was 13. There she worked at Boston University, graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a Master of Theological Studies, and began a doctorate in Religious Studies at Boston University. She also met and married Sam Brown. In their middle 30s they realized that they were at heart mountain people and returned to Utah. They are the proud parents of three wonderful children: Amelia, Lucia, and Persephone Holbrook-Brown. In Utah, Kate completed her PhD (remotely) and started her career as an historian of Latter-day Saint women, employed by the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She edited and/or wrote many books, articles, and other expressions of her careful thought and warm caring. She paid special attention in her scholarship to the relationships between food and religious community. Kate lived with abiding passion and care. She read voraciously and with great sympathy. In the last year of her mortal course, she fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Kenya, driven by her childhood reading of Out of Africa. Her entire being sparkled with the possibilities of literature, including the stories of East Africa and Karen Blixen.

Kate loved Jesus with her whole heart. There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t breathe God and Gospel. She was honored to lead teams to tell the story of the Latter-day Saints to outsiders and the stories of women to her fellow Saints. As she contemplated her passage from mortality with great sadness, it was not because she lacked confidence in the reality of an afterlife. Instead, she mourned her physical absence from the mortal lives of her beloveds. She held in her hands and her heart both the certainty that death is not the end of us and the terrible tragedy of mortality cut short.

Her father and her grandmother (beside countless generations of the ancestors she honored with her scholarly work) preceded her in death. The others remain, hallowed by her memory and her abiding presence. Funeral services will be held on Saturday, August 27 at 11am at the Bonneville Stake Center, 1535 Bonneview Drive in Salt Lake City. A viewing will be held the evening before from 5–7pm at the Larkin mortuary at 260 E South Temple in Salt Lake City. Kate loved flowers the way she loved food, viscerally. However, she asks that instead of giving flowers, well-intended friends donate to the Kate Holbrook Endowed Scholarship Fund at BYU for primary caregivers of young children pursuing graduate work in the humanities: https://kateholbrook.org/scholarship

For those unable to attend, services will be streamed via Zoom. Please visit Kate’s obituary page at http://www.larkincares.com for further information.

The Psychology of the Confessional

Since the national breaking story about the Church’s abuse hotline and an Arizona bishop providing cover for a father to continue to sexually abuse his daughters, film it and distribute it for over seven years, there’s been quite a bit of online discussion about whether the Church really has priest-penitent privilege. The Church is asserting that it does. Some members are saying “Does it, though?”

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We can—must!—do better.

A woman with red hair tosses a small, laughing child into the air.

While this post is certainly inspired by a recent—and explosive—AP news article and Salt Lake’s entirely predictable and altogether tepid response, it isn’t (strictly speaking) about the scandal. I don’t know enough about the particulars of the serious and credible allegations against the Church to really weigh in… But I’m a careful observer of the human condition and an active member of several policy making circles, so I hope you’ll indulge me in a little bit of sideline commentary.

The rage over the allegations is still white-hot, and who can blame folks? We’re talking about children, here, our most vulnerable—and literally the “least of these”, “our little ones”. But at some point, we’ll need to step back a little to collect our thoughts, if we’re ever to actually effect change. Burning stuff down is cathartic—and can actually be useful—but longterm success requires cooler heads and reasoned arguments.

It’s only in the rarest of circumstances that evil is naked and unadulterated. In our fallen world, most evil is actually found in the cracks between what we should be doing and what we actually accomplish… It’s not the incendiary evil of dictators and movie villains—but the dry, scratchy evil of a whole bunch of people doing less than their best. It’s the wages of mediocrity. It’s banale. It can even be boring… And it’s often (though not always) the direct (but largely unintended) consequences of bad systems.

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What would ‘doing it well’ look like?

“How did you get this number?”

“I found it online. I was amazed that the church would have a helpline like this for–“

“This line is only for bishops or sometimes other priesthood leaders. We can’t talk with survivors.”

“Is there a church hotline for survivors?”

“No. Please contact your bishop for support. Goodbye.”

I’d been “in the field” — if you can even call it that (fn1) — for about two months when I made this phone call in spring 2009. I was poring over every written work, talk, or resource ever published by the church or its leaders on family violence and stumbled across the helpline in an online chat forum. I was delighted — at least until I saw a few people commenting that it didn’t do survivors much good because it was only for bishops and priesthood leaders.

No way, I thought. You can’t support the survivor if you don’t support the survivor — like, you can’t address abuse if your services exclude the people who have been abused. This can’t be right. There’s no way the church missed something that basic.…right?

So I made this call. And found out that the people I thought must be misrepresenting the church’s position were telling the truth. The church had invested huge resources and effort into addressing abuse, and then had excluded abuse survivors from accessing them.

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A Few Minor, and Hopefully Helpful Editing Suggestions on the LDS Church’s Recent Statement about Abuse

Church Offers Statement on Help Line and Abuse

The abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands with the victims and survivors of abuse and desires to use its resources to prevent abuse and to protect those who experience it. The Church must never be used as a screen to hide abusers from the consequences of their actions.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes this, teaches this, and dedicates tremendous resources and efforts to prevent, report and address abuse. Our hearts break for these children and all victims of abuse.

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What the Actual F***?!?

So, I guess the reason we have all those billions is to pay off settlements in civil lawsuits for sexual abuse?

There will be and should be hell to pay.

Burn Kirton McConkie and everyone behind this “risk management” call-line to the ground.

Mercy and Justice are not polar opposites

A few weeks ago, I was attending my new ward and the bishop got up to speak. He was talking about the power of the atonement and, honestly, there are so many ways to understand the atonement I don’t really mind if people disagree with me regarding how it works. But he said something that I’ve heard a lot, that is a natural extension of the way that we talk about the atonement, but that I think completely misses the point. He said, at one point, that the essence of the gospel and the atonement was the reconciliation of justice and mercy (which I agree with), which is hard to understand because they are polar opposites. It’s the last part that I think needs reconsideration.

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The Etymology of Telestial Revisited

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Christian Nationalist Is Incompatible with Mormonism

Yesterday, this piece on Christian nationalism ended up in my Twitter feed. In it, Amanda Tyler, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty explains why it is absolutely critical for Christians to step up and expressly denounce Christian nationalism.

What is Christian nationalism? The BJC describes it as explicitly promoting the idea that Christianity should explicitly infuse the U.S.’s “public policies, sacred symbols, and national identity.” Implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) it also holds that the only true Christians/Americans are white, conservative, and born in the U.S.A.

It is critical to point out here that there’s a difference between saying (as a voter or a politician), “My values influence my policy preferences” and saying “The laws of the country should codify [my version of] Christianity.” The former, Tyler points out, allows for some work across the aisles, some vision of a better society. She points to Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor, and Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford, a former Baptist youth pastor, among others.

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On “Laws Related to Abortion”

Several weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, the church made a change to its official statement on abortion. Reaffirming its political neutrality, the church gave explicit permission for members to “choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty.”

What does that mean? Well, the church explicitly permits abortions in cases of rape, incest, in cases where the pregnancy imposes a serious risk to the mother’s health or life, and in cases where the fetus has serious defects and will not survive.

That is, the church recognizes that there must be some kind of balance between the rights of a pregnant person and the rights of a fetus. In at least some circumstances, that balance favors the pregnant person. Which makes sense—in Mormonism, we don’t have any theological commitment to when life begins. We have, of course, scriptures that suggest it may be sometime before birth (John leapt in Elisabeth’s womb when Elisabeth heard Mary) and scriptures that suggest maybe not (Jesus spoke to Nephi the day before He was born). And from a policy perspective, stillborn children are not recorded as births or deaths on church records and no temple work can be performed for them.

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You Didn’t Fail at Church Checkbox Parenting

One of the worst things I’ve encountered online among church members is the idea that if your children leave the church it’s because of you, their parents, did something wrong.

It’s obvious that this is awful in so many ways, but I want to talk about the fear and shame and church conditioning that underlies it.

Because let me tell you, as a mom of young adults and teens who is looking around at the other parents my age with their kids, pretty much every single church family I know is dealing with the loss of expectations that all their children will grow up to be church members who marry in the temple. Church checkbox families are no longer the reality for really any family and we need to confront that as a church.

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Transcript: Mormon Women’s Whiplash

This transcript of the first episode of the Third Hour podcast has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You can read more about how the podcast got started and listen to the audio here.

Richelle: Joining me today are Natalie Brown in Boulder, Colorado; Carolyn homer in Washington, DC; and Emily Butler in Cleveland, Ohio. Welcome, friends. So Natalie, let’s start with you. I’d like to jump right into your whiplash post. What inspired you to write and share it?

Natalie: So someone I’m close to sent me a news article about the new General Relief Society President, Camille N. Johnson, and pointed out that she had practiced for thirty years as a lawyer and was the president of her law firm. I know that this person sent me this article in order to make me feel better and to point to the progressive options that women increasingly have in the Church because I have been experiencing a lot of angst about what to do in terms of a career since mine has not gone quite as I planned, or as I had hoped for. But rather than making me feel happy or optimistic, it actually made me feel angry and overwhelmed and frustrated. I had reactions ranging from, “Well, why didn’t you support me like ten, twenty years ago when I was making these decisions?” And to be clear, the person who sent me this article has supported me in very many ways, but there are also many encounters I’ve had in the Church that have been less supportive of women’s careers. And at the same time, I wanted to scream because I’m now a caregiver who had to like, teach her children remotely during the pandemic. It’s like, “Well, are you saying that caregiving then isn’t enough to be a Relief Society president, that actually we do care about all those skills you learn on the job?” And so I felt that the caregiving that I’m now doing that is perfectly on-script with what a Mormon woman is supposed to do is still undervalued and unpaid, and that those skills are not recognized. So I felt a lot of whiplash and mixed emotions.

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Third Hour, Episode 1: Mormon Women’s Whiplash

Welcome to Third Hour, a new podcast from By Common Consent!

The idea for this podcast blossomed during a very lively discussion on a Facebook post from former BCC permablogger Natalie Brown. She wrote:

I struggle with how the LDS Church tends to promote to leadership roles or feature in campaigns women who hold / held prominent professional roles rather than followed the endless prescriptive, prophetic advice to stay home. (Remember, for example, the role play in the YW’s manual in which a talented female scientist practiced saying no to her career so that she could raise kids?) To be sure, I disliked that advice myself, but to this day I feel unable to pursue anything without dealing with layers of guilt and mixed-messaging from those closest to me. Indeed, I feel a great deal of paralysis when attempting to plan a life for myself. And so I find this institutional whiplash hard. Like, WHY saddle so many women like me with these lifelong feelings if it turns out that the Church didn’t really mean it? Or, conversely, why not promote and highlight more caregivers if the Church really feels that’s what has most value? Long, complicated topics . . .

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Girls Should Be Passing the Sacrament. Full Stop.

I’ve written about this twice before, but this time I’m going to be completely blunt: the church needs to allow women and girls to pass and prepare the sacrament. Like yesterday. The Doctrine and Covenants expressly prohibits deacons and teachers from administering the sacrament, which means passing and preparing it are not administering it. Thus, the only grounding for requiring priesthood to do those things is tradition.

And here’s the thing: if we’re arbitrarily preventing women and girls from doing something on the basis that we’ve always prohibited them from doing it, we’re sending them a message. And that message is, “You’re second class, and your contributions are less important.” It doesn’t matter how many times we tell women and girls that they’re important, because our actions and policies send the second message.

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Loving by Hearing and Listening

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Christianity, at its core, comes down to one word, love.  The radical egalitarianism implicit in Jesus’s use of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to explain his gospel message is what draws me in:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-39). 

Indeed, as Jeffrey R. Holland recently explained, the “first great truth in the universe” is that “God loves… wholeheartedly, without reservation or compromise, with all of His heart, might, mind, and strength” (emphasis original).  Love crosses all boundaries and traverses all borders.  Love is the beginning and the end. 

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