To Be Possessed by God

In May of 1968, Hugh B. Brown, then the first counselor in the LDS Church's First Presidency, gave the commencement address at Brigham Young University. I didn't attend that commencement since I wasn't graduating, but it made an impact on me because it was talked about so much. It was an address that deserves to be reread.

Elder Brown began with a joke: "J. Golden Kimball [one of the presidents of the Quorum of the Seventy from 1892-1938] is reported to have said that the Lord himself must like a joke or he wouldn't have made some of you people. I hope none of you will take that personally." But he quickly became more serious. He commended students for avoiding the insurrections that were common in many universities at the time and congratulated those students who had taken commissions in the armed forces of the U.S.

Then Elder Brown took a moment to talk about political parties, which is the part of his address that is perhaps most frequently quoted. It was certainly the part that was most reported in the newspapers and most talked about at the time. Elder Brown recognized that the United States was "engaged in an abrasive and increasingly strident process of electing a president." (Plus ça change . . . .) That recognition led him to caution his listeners:

. . . the leaders of both major political parties in this land are men of integrity and unquestioned patriotism. Beware of those who feel obliged to prove their own patriotism by calling into question the loyalty of others. Be skeptical of those who attempt to demonstrate their love of country by demeaning its institutions. Know that the men of both major political parties who guide the nation's executive, legislative, and judicial branches are men of unquestioned loyalty, and we should stand by and support them. . . .

Strive to develop a maturity of mind and emotion and a depth of spirit that will enable you to differ with others on matters of politics without calling into question the integrity of those with whom you differ. Allow within the bounds of your definition of religious orthodoxy a variation of political belief. Do not have the temerity to dogmatize on issues where the Lord has seen fit to be silent.

He followed with counsel against racism as well as against patriotism that requires "the hatred of another country as proof of one's love for his own."

Given the political difficulties that were raging in the United States at the time, it is no wonder that these were the things people paid most attention to. They remain topical, important, prophetic reminders of what it ought to mean to be a citizen of any country. They were so important that much of the rest of his message was generally overlooked.

Elder Brown's thesis was "I would have you put first things first and begin your education at the center of your heart."

Since the address was given at a university commencement exercise, it is not at all surprising that he spoke of education, encouraging students to continue to learn: "It is important not only that you keep growing but that you be versatile, adaptive, and unafraid to venture. In other words, be up to date. Seek to obtain a certain flexibility of mind that will inspire you to listen, to learn, and to adapt as you move forward into a new and ever-expanding universe."

But, Elder Brown, reminded his audience, knowledge of God is the most important knowledge to have, and that knowledge is not contrary to reason, but does go beyond it. It begins at the heart, in one's being rather than only in one's mind:

We cannot know Him by the intellect alone, nor with bodily senses alone, nor by only reading scripture but by inspiration—the illumination of the soul, such as was experienced by Peter when he replied to the question of Christ "Whom say ye that I am?" He said, without hesitation, though it was a surprise to him what he said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Mormons often speak of that experience in terms of feeling. God will manifest the truth of the Gospel to us (Moroni 10:4), and he does so by giving us a feeling, "a burning in our bosoms" as we frequently say (cf. D&C 9:8). I've had those experiences. In fact an experience of powerful emotion was very much part of my conversion to the LDS Church.

Nevertheless, for me the experience of being possessed by God is usually not emotional. More common is a feeling of peace, of being "at home" even when things are going badly, sometimes even very badly. Crucial to that experience is the often tacit knowledge that I am part of God's community, brought into it by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and by covenant. As the child's hymn says, "I am a child of God," I belong to him as a member of his family, loved in long-suffering and promised a place at the eternal hearth.

So for me the experience of God's possession is more often an experience of clarity and peace than it is a feeling of being emotionally overcome. Things look different when I understand that I can trust God. Things are differently. Elder Brown made the point in a striking way, saying, "We must not only possess the idea of God, but we should be possessed by it." To be possessed by God is for him to be what defines the world and our life in the world.