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Mormon Scholars Testify: Louis Midgley
|Title||Mormon Scholars Testify: Louis Midgley|
|Publication Type||Web Article|
|Year of Publication||2010|
|Authors||Midgley, Louis C.|
|Access Date||28 March 2018|
|Last Update Date||July 2015|
|Publisher||Mormon Scholars Testify|
|Keywords||Education; Revelation; Scholarship; Testimony|
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To testify of my faith in Jesus Christ as the redeemer of otherwise lost and fallen human beings, I must tell some of my own story and explain how and why my own deepest understanding of who and what I am both grounds and forms the content of my faith. My story consists of, and also reaches back to and thereby incorporates, a lush network of other stories, including that of the recovery of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restoration of the necessary keys to and through Joseph Smith, and then also to what is recorded in our scriptures. How did I come to put my trust in God? What reasons can I give for my faith?
I have lived what I consider a charmed life. As long as I can recall I have been at leisure to read essays and books, and also free to discuss with others, both learned and otherwise, what I thought I had learned from what I read. These discussions, which have taken place in a host of venues, have helped winnow some of what appears to me to be genuine wheat from the abundance of chaff that a bookish person tends to pick up along the way. This began with conversations in my youth with my father. Though he had never set foot in a university, he loved books. He managed to infect me with his obsession. He had assembled a small library of great, good, and not so good books upon which he reflected and out of which he diligently sought wisdom. He was especially fond of Shakespeare. He loved poetry, which I therefore learned to detest. In addition to Shakespeare, my father’s favorite books were Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the Federalist Papers, and especially the Book of Mormon. This may explain why I taught courses on those books for twenty years.
I confess that, for a bookish type, it was a blessing to be allowed, and also paid, to teach at Brigham Young University the history of an imposing literature on the great issues we all face. I did this by comparing and contrasting the competing claims to what can conveniently be understood as the wisdom of Athens, where one begins and ends with doubts about all opinions and where the “wisdom” one fashions flows entirely from unaided human reason, and to that of Jerusalem, which is grounded in divine special revelations and which yields a longing for a covenant love potentially welding together a community of Saints. It was soul satisfying to be able to read and discuss an impressive literature on the great questions with my students, colleagues, and others.
The wisdom of Athens rests on radical doubts about all received opinions, including those about both divine and human things, as well as its own grounds and contents. It is not to be ignored for that reason; it seems clear to me that calamities follow the absence of doubt about dominant ideologies. But, for me, doubt about some crucial things has been displaced by my own experiences with the work of the Holy Spirit. These have focused me on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the covenants I have made with him. I was anxious to discuss with my students and colleagues the various rival ideologies, both sectarian and secular, that compete with what I understand as the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have been blessed to be able to continue to do the same thing in my so-called retirement.
How did I come to a passionate faith in Jesus Christ? In part by seeing the fragility and futility of competing ways of living one’s life. My faith has been nourished and sustained by doubts about my own capacities and motives, and hence also about the indoctrination that takes place especially in universities. When I began my university studies, non-LDS were busy indoctrinating themselves in one or another variety of the then-fashionable secular understandings of our place in the world. They tended to contrast rationality with faith in God, and insisted on a radical opposition between the then-current science and what they vaguely called religion. I soon began to see that they had adopted a new secular religion—a scientism.
There were, in those days, not many but only a few thoughtful, faithful Latter-day Saints in universities. For instance, Henry Eyring and G. Homer Durham at the University of Utah fit this description. I eventually discovered Hugh Nibley at Brigham Young University. Otherwise, the cupboard was bare. There were, of course, cultural Mormons who mocked the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and manifested a mere antiquarian curiosity about Mormon things. Here and there one could see a few signs, among those sometimes described as the lost generation, of genuine faith in God, or even much serious thought about matters of faith. I soon learned to identify and then negotiate their minefields.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with divine special revelations, including especially a passion for the Book of Mormon. As a young boy, when I first heard the story of its recovery, I believed the story in a naïve way. I thus began by wanting to believe that the Book of Mormon was true. When I eventually read, pondered, and then prayed about its contents—not about whether it is true but about what its truth is for me—it seemed to me to be the crucial key to getting right with God. And every reading yields new wonders. However, I have discovered that some of those who do not believe that there was a Lehi colony do not want it to be true, which seems very odd to me. Early in my university experience, I discovered that the most impressive cultural Mormon on campus liked to boast that he had never read the Book of Mormon, though he was nonetheless certain that it was filled with much nonsense.
My faith in God did not come to me in a single flash, but it has grown as I have sought to understand especially the messages in the Book of Mormon. This then grounded my passion for the other LDS scriptures. I have subsequently felt the quiet urging of the Holy Spirit, as well as some more vigorous prodding, to testify in deed and also word to the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is set forth in the Book of Mormon. Everything I have published, from 1980 to the present, has been an offering that I have placed on the altar in an effort to find favor in the sight of God.
My initial and quite primitive university education was interrupted after two years for an LDS mission to New Zealand/Aotearoa. I had been looking forward to just that mission experience for a long time. From the moment I learned that there was such a thing as a mission, I fully expected to be called to serve in New Zealand. I have vivid memories of trying as a young boy to learn about that wonderful land and its people. I took with me to New Zealand a youthful confidence that the Book of Mormon was crucial for the life of the Saints, as well as a treasure to be shared with anyone willing to listen. And I found among the Maori a people some of whom had their own obsession with the Book of Mormon. And I also found a people among whom visionaries and divine special revelations were not a scandal. This profoundly shaped my way of seeing the world.
My experience with the Maori changed my life in a host of ways. I discovered that the older Maori read the Book of Mormon quite differently than I did. At first this puzzled me. I argued with them about it. They loved its narration of events, saw in its story much of its message. They read it as a series of stories about the faults and foibles–that is, sins–of real people not unlike themselves. They saw it as a dire warning about their own proclivities. They were, I eventually realized, living in the story, and thus reading the Book of Mormon as a warning for people much like themselves, if and when they turned away from the covenants they had made with God. Listening to their way of reading the Book of Mormon eventually led me to reject and move past the then-common effort to cull from it proof texts to be woven together into a tidy system. As I have explained elsewhere, I have come to read the Book of Mormon quite differently.
After my mission, I sought to discover and master the most radically different ways of understanding divine and human things that I could find. This eventually led me to study the writings of the most prominent Protestant theologians. I studied under and then wrote a lengthy dissertation (and some essays) on Paul Tillich, who was at the time the most radical of the leading Protestant theologians. I have always retained an interest in such things. And I believe this has prepared me in my declining years to respond to evangelical criticisms of the faith of the Saints.
In addition, since 1980, I have as often as possible and in any available venue, defended both the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the wonders of its prophetic messages. Since the story of its recovery is crucial to its message, I have defended as well as I can the crucial historical truth claims upon which the genuine faith of the Saints must necessarily rest. I have, however, no interest in picturing the Saints as faultless heroes or the Brethren as infallible sources of mere bits of information. The faith to which I testify is in God. Only God can save us. That he has for us a wondrous plan of happiness, if we are obedient to our covenants and genuinely seek to become Saints, is that to which I testify. We have, I believe, a network of stories reaching back before this world to a plan of redemption in which the Holy Messiah, God himself, took on flesh in an effort to redeem otherwise lost and fallen beings like me. If this is true, then we have genuinely good news and hence also something to hold onto and follow. From the very moment I began to know anything about these matters, I have wanted the network of stories to be true. Given my desire to believe, I have sought to have the Holy Spirit point me to genuine faithfulness. I have been constantly searching for a more adequate understanding of my own faith. Nothing I have encountered has shown that the story is not true. As my old Maori friends would say, the gospel tastes good, nourishes, brings life and light in the face of death and darkness—it is like an extraordinarily beautiful melody that sings to the soul while we endure in the darkness and doldrums of our mortal probation.
Louis C. Midgley was born and raised in a suburb of Salt Lake City. He received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Utah, and, after teaching for a year at Weber State University, he and his wife moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he received his Ph.D. from Brown University in the political science department. He taught the history of political and legal philosophy for thirty-six years at Brigham Young University, from which he retired in 1996.
Dr. Midgley has had an abiding interest in the history of Christian theology. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Paul Tillich, the then-famous German-American Protestant theologian and political theorist/religious-socialist activist. Midgley also studied the writings of other influential Protestant theologians such as Karl Barth. Eventually he took an interest in contemporary Roman Catholic theology, and was also impacted by the work of important Jewish philosophers, including especially Leo Strauss and his disciples.
Beginning with its first issue in 1989, he was a regular contributor to the FARMS Review, which soon became the flagship publication of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He eventually also had the pleasure of serving as one of its associate editors until it was cancelled in 2011. He then began serving as a contributing editor for Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture in 2012.
Dr. Midgley served two missions to New Zealand—the first in 1950-52 and the second, with his wife, in 1999-2000, during which they directed the Lorne Street Institute of Religion, in Auckland.
He is married to the former Ireta Troth, of Bountiful, Utah. They are the parents of two sons and a daughter.
Dr. Midgley’s wife passed away on 3 February 2014 from an unexpected catastrophic event following successful surgery at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital. He is now without the immediate companionship of his beautiful wife. He lives with a firm hope that he will eventually be reunited with her.
Posted January 2010
Updated July 2015
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