A reader of this blog sent me a heartfelt question, or complex of questions, last night, and I’ve chosen to respond to him here rather than on Facebook. Not because I have a decisive or overpoweringly persuasive answer to his concern — it will rapidly be all too obvious that I don’t — but because I think that the topic he raises is very significant and because I hope and think that others might have some helpful thoughts to contribute regarding it.
Recently I have begun to question the math in the Plan of Salvation. I thought you might be able give me your valuable insights. I will be as succinct as possible; Only 1% of the World population is LDS. Of that 1% only half are active in church. Of the half of percent active only about half of them are temple worthy and attend the temple. And we probably have more members with true gospel living than in any other dispensation. Why has the gospel been so hard to find on this earth and why is it so difficult for so many good people I know to keep testimonies?
First, I observe that the scriptures have always candidly acknowledged that faithful Saints constitute, and will constitute, a small minority in the world.
In Genesis 22:18, the Lord tells Abraham, the patriarch of a small, nomadic family of no great outward consequence and no statistical significance in the world, that “in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
Even among Abraham’s posterity themselves, the faithful were and are often outnumbered by those who have wandered away: “Yet,” the Lord tells Elijah, “I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:18).
Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the prophets and apostles speak of a saving or saved “remnant” (Isaiah 10:20-22; 11:11-16; Romans 11:5; Revelation 12:17; and many other passages).
Perhaps the classic text on the subject is the Savior’s declaration, in the Sermon on the Mount, that “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat,” while “strait [i.e., narrow] is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
And the numbers will likely always be relatively small. We love to see, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the “stone [that] was cut out without hands” and then “became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35). “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever” (Daniel 2:44).
But that prophecy needs to be properly understood.
Peering into the future, Nephi reports that “I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few. . . . I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were . . . upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small” (1 Nephi 14:12).
Worldwide extension, but not worldwide dominance. International reach, but small numbers. Exactly as we’re seeing today.
From the beginning, the Nephites were outnumbered by the Lamanites, and the Lehites altogether were a tiny group who had fled violent rejection by the rulers and the popular majority in Jerusalem. “The time passed away with us,” reports Jacob, “and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26).
But at least they got away alive. Jeremiah, Lehi’s contemporary, was dragged off to Egypt and murdered. And disobedient Judah, like unfaithful Israel before it, was destroyed and its inhabitants carted off to Mesopotamia.
Why is it so difficult for so many good people to keep testimonies?
The answer to that is, of course, peculiar to each individual. But it’s sadly true that we live in a time of unusual challenges to testimonies, and that more than a few are falling victim to those challenges. We have not yet adequately responded, though I hope that the forces of truth are beginning to regroup.
But, here again, the scriptures candidly note that many of the faithful will fall away. Thus, for example, the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 speaks of seeds that spring up but that are then scorched by the sun and die. That’s why scriptural texts continually tell us that “he that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22) and that, “if ye shall be obedient to the commandments, and endure to the end, ye shall be saved” (1 Nephi 22:31). If it were easy and almost universally common to remain faithful until the end, such exhortations would scarcely be necessary.
Of the eleven official Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, only five were in full fellowship with the Church at their deaths — and two of those five, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, had returned only after lengthy periods of disaffection. They continued to affirm their experiences with the Book of Mormon plates, and so forth, but their steps faltered with respect to the Church.
Of the original 1835 Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, only six, or half, were still apostles by the time they died — and of the six who remained, two had experienced prolonged episodes of disaffection. (And two of the six former apostles eventually returned to the Church, but they were never readmitted to the Twelve.)
Apostasy occurred even in the very presence of the Savior himself, as recorded (for example) in John 6:66-69:
From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.
The fear that loved ones will fall away explains why, when major scriptural figures hear that those they care about are still committed to the gospel even after a long absence, there are such notable expressions of joy. After all, mortal life and human nature being what they are, continued faithfulness takes real work. It’s not the default setting. Thus, for example, 1 John 3:1-4:
The elder unto the well beloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth. Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.
And Alma 17:1-2:
And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying towards the land of Zarahemla.
Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.
To be continued.